By Ron Klink
There is a deadly fentanyl crisis plaguing the nation, and our state has not been spared. According to then-Attorney General Shapiro, fentanyl “contributed to a rise in overdose deaths” as the state “lost 15 Pennsylvanians each and every day to drug overdose.”
Traffickers are continuing to develop terrifyingly effective ways to target our kids, just like they did with fentanyl. Only this time, they are exploiting the overwhelming popularity amongst kids and teens of illegal, disposable e-cigarettes that are made in China and marketed in youth-enticing flavors.
The danger is real, and it is at our doorstep. In March of last year, Mifflin County school officials raised the alarm after several vapes confiscated on school grounds were found to be laced with the deadly drug.
The illegal, disposable youth vaping epidemic we have today traces back to 2020, when the FDA moved to get cartridge-based, flavored e-cigarettes off store shelves but created a loophole that allowed millions of flavored disposable products to remain available. These illegal disposable vapes are pouring in from China in flavors like cotton candy that are clearly intended to get kids hooked. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called out one youth-preferred manufacturer, Elf Bar, saying, “The flavors are oriented to kids, the advertising is oriented to kids and this stuff’s poison.”
Pennsylvania’s school districts have tried to get these flavored disposables out of our children’s hands. However, the magnitude of the problem requires strong leadership on the federal level. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the nation’s principal agency for protecting the public health, must step up.
In May, recognizing the problem created by the loophole it inadvertently created, the FDA authorized U.S. Customs and Border Protection to begin detaining several illegal disposable flavored vaping products that are coming into our country from China and Korea. The FDA subsequently sent warning letters to manufacturers, retailers, and distributors to force them to stop importing and selling these illegal vapes.
In announcing enforcement action against two Chinese manufacturers whose products are widely popular with kids, Dr. Brian King, the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products director, said, “the science clearly shows that a majority of youth who use e-cigarettes report that the products they are using are disposable and flavored” and “given their appeal to youth, these products are a priority for FDA compliance and enforcement action.”
Dr. King is right. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s high school students use e-cigarettes. Nationwide, more than 2.5 million middle and high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, with well over half of them opting for disposable flavored products.
The FDA has stated clearly and unequivocally that it will be doing everything in its power to get these harmful products away from our children. It’s the right message, and one that all of Pennsylvania’s parents should get behind. Now we need to see the FDA and the Biden administration follow through with an all-of-government approach to get every last one of these illegal disposable e-cigarettes away from kids.
The FDA should start by putting some muscle behind these warning letters. It should partner with state and local enforcement agencies to make sure they have the clarity they need to know what products they can immediately take off the shelves. It should dedicate resources toward supporting enforcement actions in communities, ports and border control points of entry. Lastly, and most importantly, it should make sure that every manufacturer, retailer and distributor of these illegal products is on notice that the loophole is closed and, should they continue moving and selling these products, they will be held accountable.
Bipartisan federal legislation in Congress, H.R. 901, would also permanently close the loophole. It merits the support of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and President Biden.
Here’s hoping our elected representatives take this threat seriously. The lives of many of our children are depending on it. ••
Klink is a former four-term Democratic member of Congress from Pennsylvania.