The state of Missouri will need something stronger than a public awareness campaign if it really wants to reduce the rate of teen vaping.
Gov. Mike Parson directed multiple state departments to craft a campaign to inform teenagers about the dangers of smoking electronic cigarettes. The governor gave an update this week on efforts that seem well-meaning but also halfhearted and inadequate for the task of reining in a $19 billion global industry.
Significantly, state departments were asked to use existing funding to build a “Clear the Air” campaign on social media. At some level this frugal approach is a good thing, considering that South Dakota presumably paid someone big money to develop its “Meth. We’re On It” campaign.
But in focusing solely on public awareness, Missouri is bringing a water pistol to a four-alarm blaze. Consider that Juul, a big culprit in the rise of teen vaping, demonstrates considerable skill connecting to youth with hip online and word-of-mouth marketing. The company also spent $1.2 million on federal lobbying ... in the third quarter.
A marketing battle between a successful Silicon Valley startup and Jefferson City bureaucrats is not a fair fight. At some point, the state will have to cast aside an aversion to regulation and take stronger action if it deems teen vaping is a public health problem.
The legislative lever is much harder for the industry to counter than an online shouting match. It also makes it harder for the e-cigarette industry to use pre-emption laws to get around municipal ordinances that are stronger than regulation at the state or federal level.
For Missouri, the most sensible approach seems to be a ban on all those fruit and candy flavors. This could hit at the core of what makes vaping appeal to a younger audience while preserving e-cigarette access for older smokers who want to quit traditional cigarettes.
Other possibilities include restrictions on how much nicotine can be put in an e-cig and tougher action to prevent THC and vitamin E acetate infusions, two products that are linked to the lung illnesses that resulted in more than 2,000 hospitalizations.
Taxing an e-cigarette like a traditional tobacco product also limits availability for younger consumers with less disposable income.
Missouri’s governor and state agencies sent the right message this week about the need to do something about the meteoric rise in teen vaping, given the known health effects and the uncertainties about this product.
Teenagers should take health advice from the department of health, but we all know that’s a stretch. Faced with this reality, Missouri policymakers should see this campaign as nothing more than a first step.