As families try to navigate the new normal of school-from-home and family routine disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new tobacco campaign is taking direct aim at youth.
Puff Bar’s online campaign promises that their e-cigarettes will return sanity as the “perfect escape from the back-to-back zoom calls and parental texts.” This message comes directly into the homes of our middle and high school students while in school on their computers, tablets, and phones. The ad lies to them about the harmful effects of vaping.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) countered with a promised crack down. A recently released statement from the FDA says it will “closely monitor promotional activities and prioritize enforcement against companies marketing to minors.” Their wink and nod ad to escape “parental texts” clearly peddles their poison to minors. Additionally, on July 20, 2020, the FDA issued warning letters to ten companies, including Puff Bar, to remove their flavored disposable e-cigarettes and youth-appealing e-liquid products from the market because they do not have the required premarket authorization.
Flavored tobacco products and sleek, sophisticated looking delivery systems have been hooking kids on smoking again for the past several years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose from 3.6 million in 2018 to 5.4 million in 2019.
COVID-19 has relegated most students to their home, and the industry is exploiting the crisis targeting kids through their marketing tactics. They offer free gifts of masks and hand sanitizers, and phrases like “take a break” and “reduce stress” in their marketing campaigns.
La Mesa Mom, Moana Cabiles, is furious that these companies are targeting her daughters, ages 13 and 15.
“We have no choice; my girls have to be online for school and other activities. These ads feel like zoom bombs. Shame on them for invading our home and their learning,” said Cabiles. “I’m also offended by the ‘parental text’ reference. I have to check in on them while I’m at work. I do that to support them and make sure everything is ok. We are all stressed, but vaping is no way to take a break.”
Cabiles, like most parents, wants her teens to learn how to deal with stress in healthy ways.
“It’s hard for parents to combat a multi-million-dollar industry that bombards kids with lies,” she said.
Of course, vaping is not a way to reduce stress at all. According to the FDA, nicotine is especially addictive to young people because their brains are still developing. It changes connections in the brain, which can interfere with kids’ attention and learning. It can increase anxiety, mood swings, and irritability at a developmental time when life is already challenging.
This also comes at a time when there is emerging evidence about possible links between vaping and COVID-19. Studies show the pulmonary effects of tobacco products, and specifically about e-cigarette aerosol, impacts on immunity, and increased risk of infection and risk of COVID-19. There is also some evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase risks related to COVID-19.
Combining these factors results in a perfect storm. Nicotine increases teens’ anxiety, mood swings, and irritability, and it decreases their attention span and ability to learn. Schools are opening online because of COVID-19. Through these youth-targeted ads, the tobacco industry specifically takes advantage of the situation and targets kids online, lying to them about how relaxing a puff will be and hiding behind “healthy promotions”. No wonder parents like Cabiles are furious. More parents might be if they knew. The FDA enforcement could not happen soon enough.
On June 25, 2020, California Senate passed SB 793, a bill creating the country’s strongest restrictions on flavored tobacco products, to the State Assembly. Additionally, there are local ordinances focused on protecting minors from the harms of flavored tobacco products and vapes and on sales to minors and advertising that targets minors. The legal age to purchase any tobacco product, anywhere in America, is 21. With the support of our community and regional and state elected officials, we can help protect our youth from the harms of tobacco use and secondhand smoke.