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County lawmakers hear about vaping's addictive properties, marketing to youth

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Erie County lawmakers are considering ways they may regulate electronic cigarettes, in order to keep them away from the hands of minors. On Thursday in downtown Buffalo, members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony from experts and advocates who say vaping is not a safer alternative to traditional tobacco. They also explained how vaping is being marketed to young people.

Vaping is already banned in public spaces in Erie County. Under legislation signed in late December, e-cigarettes and tobacco products are banned from sales in pharmacies. Lawmakers are exploring possible further steps to ease what was described as a rising trend during Thursday's committee meeting.

As he opened the meeting, Legislator and committee chairman John Bruso held up a full-page newspaper ad purchased by e-cigarette maker Juul, which states 34 million Americans still smoke cigarettes and encourages them to switch to their products. The ad also states that Juul is intended for adult smokers.

Experts and advocates who testified before the committee Thursday said the vaping and e-cigarette industry are instead attempting to appeal to young people, using tactics including colorfully-designed devices and appealing flavors.

They also spoke of a false narrative that e-cigarettes and vaping are safer options for those looking to quit traditional tobacco products.

Jessica Hutchings, program director for the Face2Face Program at Kids Escaping Drugs, suggests kids are buying into that narrative.

"When we talk with the young people, one of the biggest concerns that we have with this topic, because of the resistance we meet from them, is the denial that they have of the troubles of vaping," Hutchings said. "They have been under the impression through so much of this marketing, they've kind of been brainwashed to believe that 'Juuling' and vaping is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, because that's how it's marketed for adult smokers."

The first to testify was Dr. Richard O'Connor, who directs the Tobacco Research Laboratory ay Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He cited a colleague's work which details youth using e-cigarettes and their likelihood of forming a nicotine habit.

"Youth using pod-based cigarettes have nicotine intakes equivalent to those of cigarette smokers," he said. "Nicotine salt liquids often employed in pod systems may be perceived as less harsh and irritating, despite their high nicotine content. But when coupled with attractive flavors, they facilitate youth use."

All four guest speakers agreed with the thought of forbidding e-cigarette sales to anyone uder the age of 21. Bruso also supports that idea but adds that he and lawmakers want more public input before they develop and pass legislation.

"I'm not an expert on the effects," he said. "To craft legislation that doesn't work, because it only creates another problem, I'd really like to do it the right way. We've already reviewed the other counties (in New York) and some other counties in the country, We're most certainly going to look at that."

Bruso is hosting a community forum March 6 at the Lancaster Opera House, at which time he hopes the meeting will draw school officials and parents, especially those of children of middle school age.

Legislator Thomas Loughran, who also sits on the committee, recalled when smoking was outlawed in Erie Countys bars and restaurants. He owns an establishment in the Town of Amherst and looks back on the elimination of smoking within his business in a good light. He thinks the FDA "dropped the ball" when vaping was first put on the market.

"One step forward with the smoking, now we're two steps backwards with maybe even a bigger problem because it sounds to me like youth are involved in this more than the smoking, that they're starting earlier and having easier access," he said. "When I say they dropped the ball, it created a billions-and-billions of dollars business. And now we're fighting it."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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