A group of students and legislators met at the Metropolitan Business Academy in Wooster Square yesterday to discuss the health dangers of e-cigarettes and their effect on high school culture.
Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Elizabeth Esty LAW ’85 sat alongside New Haven public high school students at the panel as an audience of officials and students from schools across the city looked on. The panel discussed the dangers of e-cigarettes, marketing strategies that e-cigarette companies have used to target adolescents and how high school students perceive their use. Connecticut’s congressional delegation has spearheaded several of initiatives to address the issue of e-cigarettes — Blumenthal has repeatedly called for restrictions on the selling of e-cigarettes, and Esty introduced a bill in the House last year to protect minors from the product.
Before the panel, Blumenthal, who became famous for suing tobacco companies as attorney general of Connecticut from 1991 to 2011, criticized the federal government’s failure to act on the e-cigarette issue.
“The FDA on this topic has been a paper tiger. It’s been too timid, too tepid — it’s been AWOL,” he said. He added that the federal government has the power to restrict sales of e-cigarettes but has chosen not to exercise it.
Panelists focused the discussion on addiction in young people. Jeannette Ickovics, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, presented research that showed that 8 percent of eighth-grade students have tried e-cigarettes, and usage rates quickly increase after that. DeLauro said that e-cigarette use has tripled among high school students in the last four years.
Kimberly Sullivan, a junior at the Sound School who attended the panel discussion, said that drug addiction is common in public schools, and tends to follow a pattern. She added that the cycle of addiction tends to begin with marijuana in freshman and sophomore years. By senior year, she said, students have begun to use e-cigarettes and are trying to wean themselves away from addiction.
Keanu Dos, a senior at the Metropolitan Business Academy, said his cousins were attracted to the advertising of Blu, a prominent e-cigarette company.
“They liked how they lit up in the front, how you can change the flavor of it,” Dos said. “They liked how the smoke came out and how it looked.”
Only one student raised his hand when Blumenthal asked if anyone present had tried e-cigarettes, but nearly all participants said that they knew of people who use e-cigarettes.
Blumenthal, Esty and DeLauro emphasized that e-cigarette companies specifically target minors in their advertising. The FDA does not currently regulate e-cigarette sales.
“The staggering, undeniable fact is that e-cigarette companies are relentlessly marketing and misrepresenting their products to young people,” Blumenthal said. “E-cigarettes are the new Joe Camel of tobacco marketing.”
As an example, Blumenthal said that Blu uses actor Robert Pattinson, who starred in the “Twilight” films, for its advertisements. He urged the Federal Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission to become more vigorous in their regulation of e-cigarettes.
The participants also discussed the potential negative impacts of e-cigarettes on the body. DeLauro said e-cigarettes are mostly made in China, and face no inspection upon arrival in the United States. Later in the talk, Esty referenced the case of a one-year-old in Fort Plain, New York, who died after ingesting liquid nicotine, the substance used in e-cigarettes.
Industry analysts estimate that e-cigarette market is worth $2.5 billion.