Putting out the light on tobacco


(re: “Lawmakers seek to curb e-cigs,” Sept. 19)

Each year, charcoaled yellow-tipped cigarette butts commonly found lying on sidewalks and roadways claim about 480,000 American lives. In other words, the equivalent of 10 Riverdale neighborhoods are lost to cigarette smoking annually.

We know what a scourge cigarette smoking is and the public health threat it poses. Less of mind in the public consciousness, though, is the threat posed by e-cigarettes, which grows every day.

Since the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking, we have known that cigarette use can lead to deadly diseases such as lung cancer. Congress has used this information to enact legislation that would protect the public from these dangerous tobacco products.

In the late 1960s, for example, Congress passed a series of laws that banned advertising in broadcast media and required health warnings on cigarette packaging. Two decades later, the late senator Frank Lautenberg and then congressman Dick Durbin led the effort to ban cigarette smoking on certain domestic flights.

Some of the most sweeping tobacco legislation, however, was not passed until the start of the Obama administration.

In 2009, I helped draft the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over tobacco issues. This comprehensive legislation strengthened the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of tobacco products.

In addition, this legislation placed significant restrictions on tobacco advertising to protect American children.

On June 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed it into law.

Recognizing that our work was far from over, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which I helped author, included provisions to expand access to tobacco cessation programs, including counseling services and FDA-approved cessation drugs. These laws helped reduce the rate of high school smoking in New York from 27 percent at the start of the 21st century, to a record low of 4.3 percent in 2017.

When Congress drafted these public health laws, we could never have imagined the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among adolescents. According to the New York Department of Health, 27 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2018, a 160 percent increase from 2014.

Much of this growth has been driven by the advent of flavored e-cigarettes, many of which are sold in kid-friendly flavors such as gummy bear and cake batter. These unethical marketing and sales practices mirror many of the tactics that we saw the tobacco industry employ in the years leading up to the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

This 2009 law took the monumental step of banning the use of flavors in cigarettes. Building off my work on this legislation, I was one of the first voices in Congress to call on the FDA to ban flavored e-cigarettes in May 2018. More recently, I have co-sponsored the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, a comprehensive bill that would ban all flavors in e-cigarettes and extend the marketing restriction in the family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act to e-cigarettes.

The ongoing youth e-cigarette epidemic has drawn public health warnings from high-ranking federal officials, including the Surgeon General and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

According to the National Education Foundation, about 3 million students nationwide are using e-cigarettes, often on school property. E-cigarette makers such as Juul frequently design devices that mirror common school items such as USB storage drives or even Apple watches.

On July 25, I introduced the Smoke-Free Schools Act, H.R. 4019, with U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart (a Utah Republican). This bipartisan legislation would ban vaping, including e-cigarette use, in schools and child care facilities.

A number of key groups have endorsed my bill, including the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the National School Boards Association. I am working with my House colleagues and the Senate sponsors of this legislation to move it forward.

The Smoke-Free Schools Act will help reduce e-cigarette use in schools, but more must be done to prevent the underlying drivers of underage e-cigarette use.

Since 2015, I have consistently supported legislation to raise the federal tobacco purchasing age to 21. Adolescence is a formative period for lifelong habits and practices. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, 95 percent of adult smokers begin using conventional cigarettes before the age of 21.

By raising the federal tobacco purchasing age to 21, the National Academy of Medicine has concluded that fewer children will become addicted to tobacco, helping save American lives.

It is unacceptable that we lose half a million Americans each year to tobacco products. The tide, however, is turning — there is broad, bipartisan support for ending this epidemic.

Democrats and Republicans have a chance to come together to pave the road for the first tobacco-free American generation.

The author is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 16th Congressional District, covering parts of the Northern Bronx and Westchester County.

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Eliot Engel,