Time for Georgia to snuff out this generation’s ‘coffin nails’

With teen vaping on the rise, will state lawmakers ban the popular sweet flavors? Earlier this month, Columbus e-cigarette store owner Keith Gossett demonstrates his wares at a Georgia House Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

One of the state’s most influential lawmakers on health policy wants to ban flavored vaping products in Georgia and raise the purchase age from 18 to 21. Her colleagues should rush to support her when the legislative session kicks off in a couple of weeks.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper. Marietta Republican

The electronic cigarettes are devices that can deliver nicotine clouds in popular candy flavors. Why would you sell sugary sweet cigarette simulators if you weren’t trying to turn kids into smokers? The risk vaping poses to children and young adults is why House Health and Human Services Chair Sharon Cooper has called for her fellow lawmakers to take both steps — eliminating nearly all flavors and making the devices available only to people old enough to buy alcohol.

The tobacco industry seems poised to passively accept an age increase in exchange for keeping the seductive candy flavors legal, which demonstrates how powerful the flavors are in wooing new customers and turning them into addicts. More than 3.6 million middle and high school students used vaping products in 2018, a 78% increase from the year before, according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration study. Big Tobacco is betting big on vaping’s growth potential. Marlboro maker Altria invested $13 billion in vaping market leader Juul in 2018.

This time of year, quitting smoking is a popular New Year’s Eve self-improvement vow. The old joke is: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

People struggle to quit because smoking is addictive, so smokers keep smoking even though the U.S. Surgeon General tells us right on the package that tobacco can kill you.

Still, 34.2 million Americans smoke, and experts say the number of new smokers figures to rise largely because of e-cigarettes.

I smoked for decades after I picked up the habit at 14. I lost count how many times I quit for weeks, months — even more than a year at a time — before I finally broke free Jan. 8, 2007.

I tried to quit by using nicotine patches and gum for years. Eventually, I realized those different sources of nicotine just prolonged my addiction, and I stopped using them as a crutch. That’s when I quit for good and why I’m more than skeptical of tobacco companies’ claims that nicotine vaping can help smokers quit traditional cigarettes. In fact, new research shows people who use both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes are at an even higher risk of lung disease than if they just stuck to one form of nicotine inhaling.

I get angry when hear the tobacco industry push vaping as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. Their business model is still to get customers hooked on a cancer-causing product they will crave morning, noon and night. Thirteen years after I quit smoking, my doctor still sends me for annual lung scans, and I wait for the results with trepidation.

Big Tobacco’s marketing of vaping products as safe is disturbingly reminiscent of the way it peddled cigarettes decades ago. Commercials showed dentists and doctors in white coats endorsing cigarette brands, even as people who smoked or the people who loved them commonly referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails.”

Today’s radio commercials pushing e-cigarettes admit that people who use their product are inhaling nicotine. But, they argue, this high-tech cloud of nicotine is cleaner than traditional cigarettes. Another selling point: Vaping doesn’t smell as bad.

Our state government is already on record about the dangers of tobacco. Georgia gets about $100 million a year from Big Tobacco’s 1998 settlement with state attorneys general who sued the companies to recover the public cost of treating illnesses caused by smoking. The states alleged a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent practices by the tobacco companies over decades of sales. Each year Georgia spends about $1.8 billion on health care costs and loses about $3.2 billion in productivity due to adult cigarette smoking.

Georgia lawmakers should understand the risks, and they should make it harder for a new generation of kids to get hooked on nicotine. The proposal from Cooper, a Republican state representative from Marietta, deserves bipartisan support.

Any lawmakers in doubt about whether their action to impose a flavor ban and purchase-age increase would have an impact should listen to the nicotine peddlers themselves: At a recent House Health and Human Services study committee hearing, vape store owners said that without the ability to sell candy-flavored nicotine, they’d be out of business. Really, would that be so bad?

John McCosh
John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. For more than a decade at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McCosh investigated state and local government officials and operations. He also tracked regional growth and development with a focus on metro Atlanta’s population-related problems, including traffic congestion, air pollution and water quality. He first learned the power of public records to unlock information when he was a commercial real estate reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.