“I’d never smoke. I vape.”
While New York City has seen its youth cigarette smoking rate drop dramatically over the past decade, a new menace has taken the place of combustible tobacco: e-cigarettes. The increase in sales and use of these products (including e-cigs, vapes, e-hookahs, mods) indicates an alarming public health trend. Despite e-cigarettes being on the market for less than ten years, e-cigarette use is now more than three times as common as smoking cigarettes among youth. The rise in popularity of these products threatens decades of progress that’s been made in fighting youth tobacco and nicotine use, yet public funding has not kept pace to address this emerging public health threat.
There is a common belief that e-cigarettes are harmless, but they are not. We know that almost all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and e-cigarettes also release carcinogenic or otherwise toxic chemicals. While the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes are still unclear, developing brains can be more vulnerable to nicotine dependence. Nicotine can also negatively affect a young person’s memory and concentration, decreasing learning ability. Further, there is now substantial evidence that e-cigarette use increases the likelihood of trying traditional combustible cigarettes.
E-cigarette companies—many owned or funded by Big Tobacco—have had success marketing e-cigarettes to youth by heavily utilizing social media, deploying a variety of fun and kid-friendly flavors, using bright, stylish packaging, and by making nicotine content and health risks unclear. These are the same tactics that worked so well for cigarettes decades ago and they are working again.
The NYC Health Department is taking a “Policy, Systems, and Environmental Change” approach to address the alarming rise of e-cigarettes and to counteract industry tactics to prevent and decrease the use of e-cigarettes among youth. The strategy, titled “Defeat Flavors and End Nicotine Dependence (DEFEND)” includes surveillance and evaluation, retailer education, a media campaign, and community and school outreach. Some of the funding for this work is carved out of existing tobacco control budgets, but new funding streams are needed to fully tackle the growing problem of e-cigarettes while continuing the critical work of reducing tobacco use across NYC.
The FDA has repeatedly delayed their health and safety review of e-cigarettes, and the market for these products has only grown. State and federal grants for e-cigarette prevention are not materializing as fast as industry sales. As the number of youth who vape continues to grow, new and nontraditional funding streams are urgently needed to address this public health epidemic.
An incubator of public health initiatives, the Fund for Public Health in New York City (FPHNYC) is poised to build partnerships and mobilize resources to support the NYC Health Department’s vital work in this area. As a national leader in reducing combustible tobacco use, NYC will address this newer threat head-on for the health of all New Yorkers. FPHNYC is proud to be on the front lines.