Suffolk Closeup: County fights vaping


The nicotine cabal is hard at it.

With smoking tobacco declining, the industry is promoting continued nicotine use by pushing electronic cigarettes and what’s called “vaping.” And Suffolk County, which for years has been a national leader in challenging the use of cigarettes, is taking on “e-cigarettes.”

E-cigarettes have become a new major delivery system for nicotine, with young people particularly targeted through added flavors, including cherry, chocolate and vanilla.

Among the final pieces of legislation enacted by Suffolk County last year was a law increasing the penalties for retailers who unlawfully sell e-cigarettes to those under 21. Meanwhile, Suffolk County is considering restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes.

The key county legislator behind Suffolk’s efforts is Dr. William Spencer, who is a physician specializing in otolaryngology, or conditions of the ear, nose and throat.

“This is a public health emergency,” Dr. Spencer said last month at a hearing on his legislation to restrict flavored e-cigarettes. “We are seeing the astonishing increase in vaping among those aged 12 to 17, and to wait for the FDA or state to take action is not acceptable at the expense of more children becoming addicted.”

Also last month, another doctor, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, called for “aggressive steps” by health professionals and governments on e-cigarettes. In e-cigarettes the nicotine is not in tobacco, as it is in regular cigarettes, but is included as a liquid. “Nicotine is dangerous and it can have negative health effects,” the surgeon general said, adding that in e-cigarettes, “it can prime the youth brain for addiction.”

A recent federal report estimates that 3.6 million teens in the U.S. — one in five high school students — are using e-cigarettes. A survey found twice as many high schoolers using e-cigarettes than the year before.

E-cigarettes and other forms of vaping have become a $6.6 billion business.

Proponents of e-cigarettes pitch that it’s less harmful than cigarettes containing tobacco.

However, as the earlier county legislation by Dr. Spencer prohibiting the sale in Suffolk to persons under 21 of e-cigarettes and passed in 2014 noted: “E-cigarettes do contain carcinogens, including nitrosamines” and “toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol … a common ingredient in antifreeze.”

As for e-cigarettes and vaping leading people to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes, these “smoking cessation assertions made by e-cigarette companies have been disproven in laboratory tests conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Regarding nicotine, it “is a known neurotoxin that is also one of the most highly addictive substances available for public consumption.”

Meanwhile, a marriage of the e-cigarette and tobacco industries is underway. The biggest e-cigarette maker, Juul, was reported last month by The New York Times to be “near to signing a deal to become business partners with Altria, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies.”

Said The Times: “The union — which would create an alliance between one of public health’s greatest villains and the start-up that would upend it — entails cigarette giant Altria investing $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake in Juul.”

Altria is the renamed Philip Morris company. The cigarette brands it manufactures include Marlboro, Lark, Virginia Slims and Parliament.

This partnership could be expected as Juul and lesser e-cigarette companies follow in the tobacco industry’s tradition. The Times noted in its article how “Juul is under intense scrutiny from public health officials and the FDA for an explosion in the number of teenagers vaping with its sleek products following a youth-oriented marketing campaign.”

Suffolk has been in the forefront in the fight against smoking, banning it in restaurants and other public places and raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes, as well as taking on e-cigarettes in 2014, said to be a first-in-the-nation move.

Years ago the tobacco industry fought back fiercely. Delegations from the Tobacco Institute, the industry’s PR and lobbying arm, descended on the Suffolk Legislature, denying a link between smoking and cancer.

But, finally, court cases including those brought by state attorneys general, an anti-smoking stand of an earlier U.S. surgeon general and, at long last, media scrutiny — tobacco industry advertising and hardline PR for decades stonewalled media investigation of the dire consequences of smoking — led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998.

Among other things, the cigarette companies agreed to compensate states for medical costs of those who smoked; finance anti-smoking campaigns; and abolish The Tobacco Institute, the band of liars-for-hire.

Smoking tobacco cigarettes in the U.S. has reached all-time lows, down to 14 percent of adults.

But e-cigarettes have come through a back door.