Raja rips teen vaping as 'public-health epidemic'

Congressman calls JUUL’s marketing of nicotine-laced vaping devices ‘nothing short of breathtaking’

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi discusses teen vaping at the City Club of Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi discusses teen vaping at the City Club of Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — An Illinois congressman went on the offensive against teen vaping this week, calling it a “public-health epidemic” and charging that efforts to market vaping devices to young smokers are “nothing short of breathtaking.”

U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg spoke at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, stating that statistics show teen vaping to be on the rise in high schools and even middle schools.

According to Krishnamoorthi, the percentage of students in high school who vape has more than doubled from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018 to 27.5 percent this year. “Five percent of middle-schoolers are vaping,” he added, charging that a probe of JUUL, the leading vape company, and its use of flavored pods laced with increasing amounts nicotine to “hook” young smokers, was “nothing short of breathtaking.”

Krishnamoorthi accused JUUL of “making vaping seem cool, harmless, and fun,” through the use of flavored pods and packaging and ads designed to mimic those for Marlboro cigarettes, the most popular brand among young smokers. In fact, he said, Marlboro had sued JUUL over the copycat designs and, while that suit was settled out of court, he’s trying to get a copy of the settlement to see if JUUL’s alleged marketing to young vapers played a part in the case.

JUUL has issued repeated statements saying that its devices are meant to aid those quitting smoking and that it does not market to those under 21. But Krishnamoorthi and other critics have been dubious, suggesting that fruit-flavored pods popular with kids are not designed with an adult smoker in mind.

According to Krishnamoorthi, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found that JUUL is “illegally marketing itself as cessation devices and that they were safer than smoking.” Instead, he charged, JUUL has actually increased the amount of nicotine in its vaping pods to three times what’s permitted in Europe — 59 milligrams per milliliter, where the European limit is set at 20.

Krishnamoorthi said vaping devices and e-cigarettes prey on teens and introduce them to smoking. “They think they’re just water vapor,” he said. They’re also attracted by the flavored pods. “Flavors hook kids,” he added.


“Flavors hook kids.”

U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi on vaping devices (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Krishnamoorthi cited a bipartisan movement in Congress, led by himself and Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York in the House and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, to end what they call a youth vaping epidemic. He praised President Trump for proposing a ban on flavored pods, but added that JUUL had responded by trying to “carve out” an exception for mint-flavored pods — which turns out to be the most popular flavor.

“That’s a horrible idea,” Krishnamoorthi said, pointing out that kids routinely learn to brush their teeth using mint-flavored toothpaste.

Krishnamoorthi said he and Durbin are working to sponsor additional legislation that would limit the amount of nicotine in vaping pods to the European standards. “We can and we must limit nicotine” as a highly addictive substance, he said.

He cited how more than 1,000 people had been afflicted with lung problems, with 18 deaths attributed to vaping just in the last two months. While much of that has been blamed on illicit pods filled with THC, the active chemical in cannabis, Krishnamoorthi said that didn’t diminish the overall negative impact of vaping on smokers, especially teens.

Although class-action lawsuits could exert pressure on vaping companies, he said, he warned of the courts slowing the process and delaying reforms in response to a rising epidemic. He pointed to how legal tactics delayed action on tobacco for decades, as well as more recently on opioids. “We’ve seen this movie before,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Let’s not watch it play out again.”