Updated 4:50 p.m.
E-cigarette usage, or vaping, has risen 430 percent in middle school students and a staggering 894 percent in high school students since 2011, according to the 2017 North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey, prompting the FDA commissioner to label the surge in use as an epidemic.
The thumb drive-like vessels, filled with “vaping juice,” are available from 465 brands and can be filled with over 7,000 flavors like mint, chocolate, bubble gum and fruit, which is a draw for many young people.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb characterized e-cigarette usage as an epidemic in September. Rose Hoban, a reporter at North Carolina Health News, says the FDA's response comes amid an “overabundance of caution.”
“It was on the late side,” Hoban told Mike Collins on Charlotte Talks Tuesday, pointing to just how popular the devices have become.
JUUL, a major player in the $22.6 billion industry, is so popular among teens and young adults that its name – much like Uber and Venmo – has become a verb, Hoban said. The company even sells a starter kit.
In a statement, JUUL Labs said the company “cannot be more emphatic on this point: no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL” and that they “stand committed” to keeping products out of reach of young users.
Those efforts have included independent research, age verification, responsible marketing and a “What Parents Should Know About JUUL” campaign. Each package also includes a warning label.
In another statement Tuesday, JUUL said it has also developed an action plan to “combat underage use” of its product. Steps in that plan include: removing non-tobacco and non-menthol flavors from all stores that carry their product, restricting some flavors to users who are 21 and older and shutting down their social media accounts, among other steps.
JUUL said the purpose of their product is to help adults quit smoking. The company said they aim to continue that mission, but know they “must be trusted.”
“We must earn that trust,” JUUL said. “That starts with action, not words.”
The unknown health implications are a huge concern for health care professionals, who say that evidence of the devices being healthier than combustible cigarettes is spotty at best.
Dr. Walid Eltaraboulsi, of Tryon Medical Partners, said that while there are diseases that have been found and others that may be found that stem from e-cigarette usage, his biggest concern is the nicotine delivery to young users.
“We know that connections within the brain are forming and continue to form until the age of 25,” Eltaraboulsi said. “So we are concerned that bringing in a new population of nicotine addiction to teenagers and young adults will impair those developing minds and lead to other behavioral issues and problems.”
Research, especially on the long-term impact of e-cigarettes, is still ongoing.
Sandra Burke, a retired cardiovascular researcher and board member of the American Heart Association who joined the show, said that the belief that e-cigarettes are safer is false.
“We need to do whatever we can to eliminate exposure to things we don’t know much about,” Burke said.
The FDA will host a public hearing to discuss eliminating the use of e-cigarettes and tobacco products in December.