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OPINION

Massachusetts should ban flavored tobacco

The vaping industry is borrowing from Big Tobacco’s playbook. From cotton candy to zombie blood, e-cigarette companies target kids with appealing flavors.

In this file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.
In this file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Picture this: You’re 12. Each day on your way to school, you pass a convenience store that sells a wide array of e-cigarettes. In class, your friends are vaping beside you, hiding the flash drive-shaped devices from your teachers. Kids are constantly asking to go to the bathroom, which is now called the “Juul room.” People are vaping everywhere you look. At first, this surprised you. Now you don’t even think twice. Vaping has become a way of life.

Before Governor Baker announced a four-month ban on vaping products in September, this is what young people faced all across Massachusetts. Despite the ban, students in middle and high schools are still vaping and others are being lured by the industry’s questionable tactics.

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The vaping industry is borrowing from Big Tobacco’s playbook by offering flavored products that appeal to young people — from cotton candy to zombie blood. Although some companies, including industry leader Juul, have suspended the sale of many of their flavored products, Massachusetts should end the sale of flavored e-cigarettes once and for all.

Juul products on display at a smoke shop in New York. Last month, Juul announced it will voluntarily stop selling its fruit- and dessert-flavored vaping pods.
Juul products on display at a smoke shop in New York. Last month, Juul announced it will voluntarily stop selling its fruit- and dessert-flavored vaping pods.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

A bill sponsored by state Senator John F. Keenan and state Representative Danielle Gregoire — An Act Modernizing Tobacco Control — would ban all flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes, flavored cigars, and menthol cigarettes. It would also levy a 75 percent excise tax on vaping products. The bill passed the House Wednesday and is expected to be considered by the Senate next week.

As a recent high school graduate, I saw firsthand the way e-cigarettes have become ingrained in teen culture. My generation grew up believing that we would be the first to end smoking. Instead, we watched as e-cigarette use exploded among our peers.

These products aren’t infiltrating classrooms on their own. E-cigarettes may be relatively new to the market, but young people are still being targeted in the same way they have been for decades. Flavored e-cigarettes are our generation’s Marlboro Man, our Joe Camel. They’re Big Tobacco’s not-so-secret weapon.

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There are now 5 million youth e-cigarette users, a number that has more than doubled in just the last two years. More than 1 in 4 high school students now use e-cigarettes, and 1 in 9 use on a near-daily basis, which can be an early indication of addiction.

We have a widespread youth vaping epidemic, affecting youths all across the country. We should be infuriated. We should be exasperated. We should be heartbroken.

The vaping industry is feeding off of kids my age — and younger. A sixth-grade student told me it was easier to borrow a Juul than a pencil.

Ninety-seven percent of current youth e-cigarette users have used a flavored e-cigarette or vaping product in the last month. More than 70 percent of youth users say they use e-cigarettes because they come in flavors they like.

The legislation also bans menthol-flavored cigarettes, which are popular among young smokers and communities of color. Seventy percent of African-American youth smokers use menthol products — and 89 percent of all African-American smokers.

The state can address the e-cigarette crisis by eliminating flavors. If lawmakers don’t enact this legislation, more kids could start vaping regularly and possibly become addicted. We need a permanent solution that takes direct aim at flavored products. Every young person in Massachusetts deserves a healthy future.

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Sarah Ryan is a freshman at Boston College and a national youth ambassador for Tobacco-Free Kids.