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Physician: The nicotine, not the flavors, needs regulation



While most of the recent legislative action on e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems are focusing on the flavors that are appealing, especially to children, one doctor came before a House subcommittee to testify that regulators should be targeting the nicotine content, not the flavor.

An electronic cigarette, or e-cig, is shown Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Martevax/Creative Commons License

Michael B. Siegel, MD, MPH, a physician and professor at Boston University School of Public Health, said the turning point in the spike in youth e-cigarettes occurred when products like Juul, Sourin, Smok, and Phix were introduced into the market.

Prior to that, he noted that, in 2014, citing that year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74% of nonsmoking youth e-cigarette users reported using e-cigarettes no more than once per week, while only 4% reported daily use. By 2018, 12% of nonsmoking youth e-cigarette users were using e-cigarettes daily, while 42% of nonsmoking e-cigarette use was no more than once a week, according to that year’s CDC survey.

“All of these brands use a different nicotine formulation from virtually all other e-cigarettes,” Dr. Siegel testified Oct. 16 at a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing. “They use a nicotine salt at very high concentrations.”

His written testimony notes that Juul and similar products use nicotine salt at concentrations of 50 mg/mL, whereas most other e-cigarette products have nicotine concentrations that are less than 25 mg/mL.

“The use of nicotine salts allows nicotine to be absorbed into the bloodstream much more quickly, simulating the pattern you get with a real cigarette,” he continued. “That is why so many youth are now addicted to vaping. It is not the flavors. It’s the nicotine.”

Susanne Tanski, MD, testifying on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics agreed with Dr. Siegel that the Food and Drug Administration needs to be doing more to regulate the amount of nicotine that these products are releasing and that the introduction of nicotine salt was a significant cause of addiction.

However, she also targeted flavors as a key issue.

“There is reasonable concern that flavors may also modify the addictiveness of e-cigarettes, but with the thousands of flavor combinations on the market, there has not been specific research yet to test this hypothesis,” Dr. Tanksi, a pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., noted in her written testimony. “We know that flavors unto themselves are pleasurable. If you link a pleasurable flavor with a buzz of nicotine from a powerful nicotine delivery system such as the newer e-cigarettes, perhaps this is even more behaviorally and biologically reinforcing to drive the addictiveness of this new generation of products.”

Other panelists also expressed concern about the flavoring of e-cigarettes.

Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) noted that “flavor is very attractive. It really drives our eating habits and other habits.” She then asked whether “e-cigarettes’ sweet flavors have contributed to youth tobacco use.”

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, responded by saying that all “of the evidence is that they are the driving force of that and that it has gotten worse over the last 4 years.”

He also noted that while youth use of flavored products has spiked in the last 4 years, there really has not been any growth in adult usage of flavored tobacco.

“What it shows is the introduction of all these flavors has fueled a youth epidemic, but it has had no impact whatsoever” on adults. “Indeed, before Juul was introduced, the most popular e-cigarette flavor was tobacco. So, for smokers who want to quit, that was a viable option until Juul changed the market.”

The subcommittee hearing was held to solicit opinions on H.R. 2339, the “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019.” Among the provisions in the bill are raising the minimum age of purchasing all tobacco and nicotine products to age 21 years, requiring health warning labels on e-cigarette products, placing restrictions on advertising that are similar to those on smoking products, and prohibiting Internet sales of e-cigarettes.

Dr. Siegel voiced his approval for the bill, providing the provision that bans all flavored tobacco products was removed.

He noted that the current epidemic of vaping illness and deaths recently has not been caused primarily from legit e-cigarette and other vaping products, but rather from black market, THC-laced vaping cartridges.

“A ban on flavored e-cigarettes would create a public health disaster because it would create a new black market for flavored e-liquids,” he testified. “It is nearly certain that we would see more outbreaks similar to what we are seeing now with these tainted THC vape cartridges.”

He continued: “Banning flavored e-liquids is not going to do anything to curtail this respiratory disease outbreak, but it may make the outbreak worse. Why? Because the supply of e-liquids that youth are vaping is going to transition from one dominated by nicotine products to one dominated by THC products, exactly the products that are causing this outbreak.”

Dr. Siegel also spoke to the potential effect it might have on adult smokers who have abandoned combustible tobacco products in favor of e-cigarettes.

“More than 2 million adult smokers in the U.S. have quit smoking completely by switching to flavored electronic cigarettes,” he said. “If these products are banned, many of these ex-smokers will return to cigarette smoking. Most of those who don’t will turn to a new potentially dangerous black market that will be created by this legislation.”

Dr. Tanski, on the other hand, called the provision banning all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, “the single most important policy that Congress can pass to address the youth tobacco epidemic, and a step that Congress took years ago for other flavored cigarettes.”

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