Editorial: Criminalization will push teens towards illicit products


Collegian Editorial Board

Throughout the summer of 2019, the United States endured a sudden outbreak of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now calls e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury (EVALI). The mysterious illness puzzled health officials for months; meanwhile, the EVALI emergency room visits peaked in August. According to the CDC, 52% of EVALI patients were under 24 years old, meaning that this is an acute condition appearing in new users as well as old.

So, why were products that had been on the market for 20 years suddenly causing acute injury?

Toward the end of 2019, the CDC discovered that retail nicotine vaping products were likely not responsible for the outbreak. Patient data supports this assertion, with only 14% of EVALI cases reporting exclusive use of nicotine cartridges. Meanwhile, 82% of the afflicted reported using illegal THC cartomizers. The CDC identified Vitamin E Acetate, a thickening agent, as the prime suspect in EVALI cases. Although some medicinal dispensaries use the same agent in their products, the chemical composition of the Vitamin E Acetate coming off the street proved very different in nature, and basement chemists don’t exactly cooperate with the Food and Drug Administration.

Unlike retail nicotine products, these cartridges undergo no testing or quality control — not even in private laboratories. This means that, like any other illicit substance, the buyer knows nothing about the true ingredients in the product. Additionally, there is no brand presence behind the products, making holding the manufacturer accountable nearly impossible. Now that the White House has raised the age to legally purchase nicotine products to 21, already-addicted teens may now turn to new illicit markets, exposing nicotine users to even more dangerous products than before.

While states with legal adult marijuana-use markets will likely soon ban such additives as Vitamin E Acetate, the judicial system has no such control over illegal markets. This further criminalization will likely impede the CDC and FDA’s studies on teen use of the drug, as criminalization has greatly slowed the study of marijuana use. The new restrictions are counterproductive in this regard, as precise data and research on teen use of vaping products enable public and private health care organizations to better address its consequences. Criminalization could also discourage teens from participating in nicotine cessation programs, therefore decreasing such programs’ effectiveness. Without amnesty amendments for nicotine similar to those made for alcohol, existing addicts are now criminals.

The White House’s decision to raise the minimum age seems uninformed and hasty given that it contradicts the previous approach to curtailing smoking throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Counter-marketing in advertising and schools is tried and true, as the CDC’s “Tips from Former Smokers” advertisements reportedly drove 1.6 million smokers to attempt quitting in the first year of its campaign. We at The Collegian believe that the White House’s decision to raise the minimum age to purchase nicotine products was a hasty effort to appease an upset populace. Additionally, we expect that the new law will do more harm than good, as it denies teens access to more regulated products and, more importantly, cessation without fear of consequences. The Trump Administration turned its backs to historical precedent in favor of reactionist policy, creating more obstacles for public health administrations, care-providers and addicts to overcome.

The Collegian Editorial Board meets weekly and agrees on the issue of the editorial. The editorial represents the opinion of The Collegian.