Suffolk Closeup: The Nicotine Cabal

Karl Grossman

The nicotine cabal is hard at it, what with smoking tobacco having declined, 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, which had been the main delivery system of nicotine, is taking on “e-cigarettes.”

E-cigarettes have become a new major delivery system for nicotine, with young people particularly targeted, with flavors added—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 that 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 (conditions of the ear, nose and throat).

“This is a public health emergency,” said Dr. Spencer 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.”

Last month, too, 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,” said the surgeon general. And 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 out of 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 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 to people quitting 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,” he said.

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 Timesto be “near to signing a deal to become business partners with Altria, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies.” According to 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 — and in 2014 e-cigarettes, said to be a first-in-the-nation move. The tobacco industry years ago 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 attorney generals, an anti-smoking stand of an earlier U.S. surgeon general and, at long last, media scrutiny (tobacco industry advertising and hardline PR held back for decades wide media investigation of the dire consequences of smoking) led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998.

The cigarette companies agreed to, among other things, compensate states for medical costs of those who smoked, finance anti-smoking campaigns and abolish that band of liars-for-hire, The Tobacco Institute. Smoking tobacco cigarettes in the U.S. has been reaching all-time lows, down to 14 percent of adults. But e-cigarettes have come through a back door.