By Narinder Dhaliwal, MA | June 2 2015
Project Director, California's Clean Air Project, ETR
“Nicotine is not addictive,” tobacco executives said in 1994, testifying before Congress in what are now known as the Waxman Hearings. They said this repeatedly, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary from authorities all the way up to the U.S. Surgeon General.
Over 20 years later, we have 20 more years worth of scientific evidence demonstrating that nicotine is addictive and harmful. We know these products are killing people in all kinds of ways, from direct smoking, to secondhand smoke exposure and even thirdhand smoke (the residual nicotine and other chemicals that remain on people and indoor surfaces—hair, skin, clothes, counters, furniture, drapes, bedding and more).
Today in 2015 the three biggest tobacco companies—Altria (Philip Morris), R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard—are investing heavily in e-cigarettes. They are creating their own product lines and buying up whole e-cigarette companies.
What does this tell us?
Have tobacco companies had a change of heart? Do they want smokers to quit? Are they investing in e-cigarettes to help them?
Or are they planning to corner another very profitable, habit-forming market to keep plenty of people hooked?
I’m going to roll back time to 1990 for a moment. I’m standing outside my front door with my little boy. He picks a cigarette butt up off the ground and puts it in his mouth. He mimics smoking because he wants to be just like his uncle.
My son! You can imagine my panic. I went from happy mom to psycho mom in two seconds flat!
Flash-forward to 2015. Now, I’m having a talk with my 8-year-old granddaughter. We’re discussing e-cigarettes. I explain what they are and why they are bad for us.
So what has really changed?
As the federal government continues to drag its feet to set regulations for e-cigarettes, my colleagues and I are hearing reports of third, fourth and fifth graders happily consuming these “fun-flavored” products. Use among high school and middle school students tripled between 2013 and 2014. Students now use more e-cigarettes than conventional tobacco products.
Meanwhile, tobacco companies are basking in their newfound “pot of gold” while utilizing their old tactics of marketing on TV shows popular among youth. The ads glamorize e-cigarettes with actors and promote themes of independence and “freedom.”
See where I’m going here? New product, old tobacco company tactics!
I urge you to find out more. Research what e-cigarettes are about and be a better-informed health care provider, teacher, youth advocate, colleague, parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, brother or sister.
If you visit ETR’s Tobacco Education Clearinghouse website, you will find materials to help in public health education and school-based prevention.
As we continue to navigate the uncertain waters of e-cigarette regulation, we must never forget who we are dealing with. I’ll leave you with one of dozens of chilling comments discovered among the tobacco companies’ internal marketing documents:
“Because after all, young people are important. They represent tomorrow’s cigarette business. As this 14–24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume—for at least the next 25 years.”
—C.A. Tucker, Marketing Vice-President, R.J. Reynolds, addressing the company’s Board of Directors on September 30, 1974.
I hope you’ll join me in doing everything possible to prevent the tobacco companies from making a similar effort with e-cigarettes. Let’s stop the déjà vu!
Narinder Dhaliwal, MA, is a Program Manager at ETR and the Project Director of California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP). She works with tobacco control programs throughout California’s 61 health jurisdictions. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.