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Penn Law hosts panel on the social and regulatory issues arising from e-cigarettes

November 02, 2018

By Joyee Au Yeung

On November 1, Penn Law hosted a panel on vaping and its effects on health, society, and the environment as a part of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society talk series. The event, “All About Vaping: Sciene, Policy, and Society,” featured three speakers: Janet Audrain-McGovern, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine; Eric Feldman, Professor of Law and Professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at Penn, and Mari A. Schaefer, a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer who covers wellness. Each speaker touched on different effects of vaping, ranging from health effects on adolescent youth, to legislative efforts and regulations, and other negative impacts of e-cigarettes.

Professor Audrain-McGovern, an expert in nicotine and how it affects 14- to 18-year-olds, opened by stating that e-cigarettes are attracting a lot of middle school and high school students, warning that they might create “another generation that is addicted to nicotine.” Many e-cigarette companies such as JUUL market their products as a healthier and cleaner cigarette alternative, with less or no nicotine and carcinogens, Audrain-McGovern said. However, she explained that nicotine is still extremely common in e-cigarettes, and teenagers are often unaware of their consumption levels. Additionally, some risks of the associated with e-cigarettes are just beginning to be identified, including nicotine addiction, increased blood pressure, and bronchitis symptoms.

Audrain-McGovern highlighted the fact that e-cigarettes are marketed with various flavors, which attracts a younger audience. Non-smokers are attracted to the various flavors, including “apple cider,” “mango,” which leads to longer commitment to e-cigarettes. She referred to e-cigarettes as a gateway to further substance use for teenagers, specifically non-smokers. This includes traditional combustible cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.

Professor Feldman followed up on the discussion by asking two questions: “Is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doing enough? Is the FDA doing what it ought to do?” He outlined the FDA’s history with tobacco control, and FDA’s recent moves towards regulating e-cigarettes, including exercising regulatory authority over e-cigarette marketing. Feldman mentioned the FDA’s surprise visit to JUUL’s headquarters, and examination of their marketing documents. Shortly after the visit, Altria, another e-cigarette company, declared its support for raising the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21, and announced that it would stop selling certain flavors of e-cigarettes. Feldman ended his section with a dilemma for the FDA and for the audience: Should they hold e-cigarette companies responsible for the rapid increase in youth tobacco use; or should they focus on how e-cigarettes serve as a better alternative to traditional cigarettes?

As a journalist, Shaefer took a different approach as a journalist, as she focused on the social effects of e-cigarettes. She remained critical of e-cigarettes throughout her remarks, and emphasized the fact that their long-term health effects remain unknown. With e-cigarettes becoming so popular among celebrities, including stars like Johnny Depp and Katy Perry, vaping is now a huge trend among the younger generation, she argued. She pointed out that thanks to the possibility of buying e-cigarettes online, it is easy for underage children to get access to them, which may damage their development and lead to widespread nicotine addiction. Shaefer also turned to discussing e-cigarettes’ environmental impact, noting for example that JUUL pods cannot be recycled. If these pods are not discarded properly, they may combust, and leftover hazardous chemicals might seep into soil and into groundwater.

In conclusion, all three panelists agreed on the dangers vaping poses to the younger generation, and gave their complementary perspectives on how society is responding to this e-cigarette trend. However, the question remained: does e-cigarettes’ profile as a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes excuse the dangers they pose to youth?