Yael Mintz, 11 years old, sat poised at a desk in front of a panel of New York City Council members Wednesday. She was speaking in favor of the ban on flavored e-cigarettes at a City Hall hearing. “I know kids only a year older than me already sucked in the world of juul,” she said, speaking of a leading brand of e-cigrette that is popular with young people.
As the daughter of the co-founder of PAVe—Parents Against Vaping and E-Cigarettes— Yael knew her stuff, she wrote the whole speech by herself. “The cool design and pretty colors draw in youth, and the flavor names make it sound like a candy that you can enjoy like a treat to relax after a long day of school,” she said. She said she spots enticing juul advertising all over bodegas every morning on her way to school.
Yael was one of many at the hearing with a strong opinion on e-cigarettes, both for and against. Children, along with doctors, pastors, former smokers, professors, and bodega owners testified for more than five hours in an animated debate regarding two bills proposed by the Committee of Health, one pushing for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and another on menthol tobacco cigarettes. The two bills, proposed by Committee Chair Mark Levine and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, aim to stop the widespread use of nicotine products by young people and, in particular, reduce their use in minority populations being targeted by these products.
But others at the hearing argued that such bans would also mean a loss in business, especially for bodega owners and vape shop owners, as well as the loss of a safer alternative for people addicted to cigarettes. In the middle of the hearing, in fact, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study stating that e-cigarettes are nearly twice as effective as conventional nicotine replacement products to help smokers quit.
Yael testified alongside four other middle-school and high-school students, who recounted tales of students hiding in the bathroom during classes to juul so often that professors stopped allowing unmonitored bathroom breaks.
“With options like Cotton Candy, GummiBerry and Snow Cone, the youth appeal is not surprising,” said Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in her testimony. She explained that in 2017, her department’s research showed that 21 percent of public high school youth in New York City used nicotine products such as the juul. The FDA has described a new “epidemic level” of youth consumption of juuls and similar products. Approximately 81 percent of current under 18 e-cigarette users said that the appealing flavors are a primary reason for use, with repeated exposure encouraging cigarette smoking too, according to Barbot.
Just as flavored e-cigarettes are marketed to target youth, mint and menthol tobacco cigarettes are marketed to minority communities. According to Commissioner Barbot, among New York City youth who smoke, two-thirds started with menthol or flavored product. The Department of Health has estimated a potential 100,000 New Yorkers may attempt to quit smoking immediately after a ban on menthol takes effect.
Menthol cigarettes are used by 85 percent of Black adults who smoke and 64 percent of Latino adults who smoke, and are sold at cheaper prices in poorer communities, according to the not-for-profit Tobacco Free Kids. “The predatory marketing of these products should be recognized as a social injustice issue, which impacts young people, poor communities, marginalized groups, and communities of color,” said Reverend Jesse Brown, part of the African American Tobacco Control Council.
But testimony in favor of flavored e-cigarettes was firm too. According to David Abrams, professor at NYU College of Global Public Health, the scientific evidence presented against them is incomplete. “Scientists do change their mind when new evidence is available, I know this firsthand because I was wrong in opposing e-cigarettes. Millions of smokers have already successfully quit tobacco thanks to flavored e-cigarettes,” said Abrams, a Flavors Save Lives badge pinned to his lapel.
Professor Abrams was joined by several former smokers, men and women who said they used to smoke two to three packets a day, who were homeless and would buy cigarettes instead of food, or who said they have lost siblings and parents to lung cancer. But they all said they did not any longer smoke because of e-cigarettes, vapes, and juuls, which have not yet been FDA approved as smoking cessation devices.
“In eight years of business I have saved over 10,000 people from smoking cigarettes. And in 90 days you’re going to undo that, I hope you can sleep with that!” shouted Spike Babain, a member of the NYState Vapor Association, pushing the desk microphone to the side with vigor. She opened the first vape shop in New York City in 2011, she said. With some 70 vape-specific shops in the city, and 93 percent of their sales being flavored liquids, hundreds of people will be losing their jobs, Babain said.
Accusations that the ban would send New York City into another age of Prohibition were thrown around the room.
“This proposal hurts our community disproportionally, and will not solve the problem of underage access, but make the black market bigger,” said David Diaz, president of the Bodega Owners Society. Although Joel and her friends described the ease with which they can purchase e-cigarettes at bodegas even though they are underage, Diaz said he thinks that most of the products they’re consuming come from the internet, where there is no age certification, and from the black market.
No vote was taken, and the next hearing or voting date still has not been scheduled. Mark Levine, chairman of the City Council Committee of Health, said this was “one of the most informative hearings” he had ever chaired.