Matthew Myers and the fight against flavored vapes

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Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Executive Director Matthew Myers began his anti-tobacco advocacy career in 1980 when he was hired to spearhead the Federal Trade Commission’s tobacco-related investigation that compelled Congress to strengthen warning labels on cigarettes.

Myers, 72, a trained lawyer, then served as general counsel to the anti-tobacco coalition that included the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and American Heart Association from 1982 to 1992. He also advised state attorneys general during negotiations that led to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement mandating that the four largest tobacco companies pay states $206 billion for damages over 25 years. He has not stopped fighting big tobacco since.

Now a father of two and grandfather of four, Myers is advocating with the same zeal for restrictions on the vaping industry, which he said took a page right out of big tobacco’s advertising playbook, especially when it comes to the marketing of fun flavors to teenagers.

Anyone keeping up with the rising number of vaping-related lung injuries, which has surpassed 2,200, or the sharp rise in teenage vaping, has likely seen Myers on television warning about the size of the problem.

In November, he sat among e-cigarette industry representatives, concerned parents, and President Trump himself in a heated discussion about possible remedies to the teenage vaping “epidemic.” It’s an adopted term used to reflect data showing over 4 million teenagers are vaping, most commonly, flavored nicotine concentrate. In the meeting and conversation, Myers called for an all-out flavor ban, including for mint and menthol flavors.

“Unless these flavors are removed from the market, we will see another million-and-a-half kids next year become addicted for the first time. New users will only continue to grow. We’ve got to stop the growth of the epidemic,” Myers told the Washington Examiner. “There’s strong survey data to indicate that the majority of kids who use flavored products say they will quit altogether if there are no flavors available.”

A November 2019 study published in the scientific research journal JAMA found that among current high school students who exclusively use e-cigarettes, 72.2% use flavored e-cigarettes, most commonly with flavors such as fruit, mint, and candy.

E-cigarette giant Juul came under pressure to remove flavors that appealed to children from the market, and in 2018, the company stopped selling mango and creme brulee flavored pods in stores.

Myers pointed out, though, that children just moved over to mint pods, which are even more appealing to young adults 18 to 21 and children 12 to 17 than fruit and dessert flavors. Juul removed mint pods from stores and their online store in early November, but Myers said children would transition to the next available flavor — menthol.

“So two years ago, Juul announced that it was going to stop selling mango. Well, first of all, you can still go into stores and find Juul mango. Second, Juul knew even then, we have reason to believe the kids would simply switch to mint,” Myers said.

Pressure on the administration to regulate the vaping manufacturers mounted, and by early autumn, the odds of the administration enacting new restrictions looked promising.

In fact, Trump considered a comprehensive ban on vaping flavors, having announced plans to enact the ban in September. Earlier this month, though, he reportedly heard from senior advisers that a flavor ban would alienate his base and hurt his chances for reelection and backed off.

Deciding to stall on a vaping flavor ban so as not to jeopardize part of the electorate is bad politics, Myers said. More importantly, it signals that politics takes precedence over public health.

“I think his political campaign adviser is responding to wealthy special interests but actually giving the president very bad advice,” Myers said just days after the president reportedly stalled plans to ban flavors.

The crisis, he said, will continue until all flavors are removed from the market.

“Unless we take immediate action, we’re going to pay for this epidemic for decades,” Myers said about Trump’s change of course in banning flavors. “He is misreading the public. This is an issue where conservatives as well as liberals … support banning flavored e-cigarettes. Precisely because there isn’t a mother or father in the country who doesn’t feel vulnerable.”

Myers entered the White House Cabinet room discussion with the same convictions he has held for over 35 years, that the tobacco industry has far too much power, and it must be restrained.

“The tobacco industry, and now Juul, continually put their personal profits above the health of not just the American people, but the entire globe’s people,” Myers said. “Their ruthless, unethical behavior will only continue unless there are advocates who stand up to them and expose their wrongdoing.”

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