E-Cigarette Use 'Alarming,' Says American Lung Association's Chief Mission Officer

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

by Julia Snyder

You’ve seen the viral videos. Young people at a party put what looks like a USB thumb drive to their lips, then pull away, when they realize it really is a USB thumb drive. They had thought it was a Juul, the distinctively shaped and most popular e-cigarette in the country.

The videos are meant to be funny. Deborah P. Brown, M.S. ‘87, the Chief Mission Officer of the American Lung Association, isn’t laughing.

“The American Lung Association is very concerned that we are at risk of losing another generation to lung disease because of e-cigarettes,” says Brown, who spoke about the the dangers of e-cigarettes for young adults Thursday, Nov. 15, in the Forum Theater at Campion Student Center. “The FDA has reported that youth e-cigarette use increased by more than 75 percent this year and reached ‘epidemic’ levels. It's alarming.”

The FDA report, which came out just an hour before Brown's talk, was startling, with use among high schoolers jumping nearly 80% and almost 50% among middle schoolers in the past year alone. The number of young people using e-cigarettes increased by 1.5 million people, to 3.6 million total, in a single year.  

"These data shock my conscience," FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement that proposes increased regulation of the products, which were introduced a decade ago as ways to help adults break their smoked tobacco habit. Instead, studies suggest, they have served as a new channel to hook young people on nicotine — and the data shows adults who use e-cigarettes are more likely to continue smoking.

It’s against this backdrop that Juul, which is responsible for more than half of all e-cigarette sales and a great deal of the spike in e-cigarette use among youth, announced earlier this week that the brand will discontinue the sale of flavored products (except for mint and menthol) and social media ads as ways to combat the increase in young vapers. 

Brown said she hopes the FDA will be foreceful in protecting people from dangerous products.

“Voluntary action by the industry – including the e-cigarette industry – is not enough. Instead, we need meaningful action by the Food and Drug Administration. For more than 60 years the tobacco companies have claimed they are capable of self-regulation. Today we see the exact same companies making those exact same claims.  It has never worked before and it will not work now.”

Brown says young people are particularly susceptible, and vulnerable, to e-cigarettes’ marketing efforts.

“Since they look like flash drives, come in fun flavors and are sold in corner stores, e-cigarettes are dangerously accessible,” she says. “Many teens who use Juuls don’t seem to think that they’re using an e-cigarette or a tobacco product. But what’s often overlooked is that [many of] the pods contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.”

Studies have shown that nicotine can have adverse effects on the brains of young people.

That’s why the Lung Association is calling for a serious overhaul of the e-cigarette market. In addition to stopping the sale of all flavored products, it is requesting that the FDA restrict marketing aimed at younger demographics, prohibit online sales until safeguards are installed to prevent sales to children and enforce current rules prohibiting the sale of new or changed products after August 8, 2016, without prior agency review.

The mission of the Lung Association bears a special importance to Brown, who has worked there since 1981.

“I started at the American Lung Association right out of college as a health educator because — like most college students — I thought it was just a great starting point for my career,” she says. “Little did I know that four years into that position my sister would be diagnosed with a pulmonary disease that she died from quickly, and since then my dad and a second sister have also been diagnosed with the same disease.” 

Research funded by the Lung Association has aided in the treatment her family members and many others have received.

Now, after almost four decades and many different positions, Brown, of Kennett Square, credits Saint Joseph’s as the bedrock of her career. 

“Things have changed so much since I graduated in 1987, but from my experience at West Chester University and Saint Joseph’s University, I’ve got a good base to deal with those changes,” says Brown. “I truly believe that sometimes you’re put in the right place to do good work. I’ve worn many hats in my career, and I’m honored to be here to lead our mission staff to ultimately save more lives.”  

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