Nearly half a million people die every year from complications from smoking. About a tenth of them never put a cigarette to their lips. They die from exposure to second-hand smoke. Death from tobacco is, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of preventable death. But too many people, enticed by advertising, think that smoking is so ‘cool’ that they embrace it. And the tobacco industry spent more than $9 billion on smoking advertising, or about a million dollars an hour.
For too many, cigarettes are a desperate addiction, encouraged by pernicious advertising. The addiction hits folks of color (Black and Brown folks) hardest. We are more likely to be exposed to heavy advertising, more likely to become addicted, and more likely to die from complications of smoking addiction. Public policy can help ameliorate this challenge, perhaps, by further restricting who can buy tobacco and when. Because addictions start early, public policy can help by supporting efforts underway to limit the sale of nicotine to those who are under 21.
Instead, unfortunately, some would prefer to restrict the sale of vaping products in particular to keep them out of the hands of children. Why not just further limit the sale of all tobacco products? The companies that manufacture vaping products, like the market leader Juul, are to be commended for attempting to protect young people from the deleterious effects of their products. But their recently accelerated activism is only one small step toward ensuring that young people are protected from the harmful effects of smoking, and they cannot do it alone.
Very recently, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, resigned for “family reasons” (don’t you love it when White men suddenly discover their families when they are in hot water). At the same time, we learned that too many chains, like Walmart, Kroger and Walgreens, along with gas stations, are breaking the law by selling cigarettes and other nicotine products to young people.
But here’s the deal. It doesn’t make sense to regulate the sale of nicotine products, like vaping, without looking at the sale of nicotine products, like cigarettes. Children (yes, despite their protests, I think of anyone under 21 as a child) shouldn’t be purchasing alcohol or tobacco. Period. End of conversation. They aren’t grown. They are susceptible to addiction. The law should protect them and penalize those who make it easy for them to access these products.
But the law does not protect. Instead, legislators selectively go after some products, while protecting others. If legislators understood the damage that nicotine and tobacco products do to people, especially young people, they’d be rushing to outlaw them. Instead, because tobacco is big business, the industry is protected. Furthermore, products that attempt to ameliorate the harmful sides of smoking, like vaping, are subjected to unreasonable scrutiny, even outlawed. To their credit, vaping companies are owning their role in possible addiction and standing for a ban on selling any nicotine products to children.
Part of this is personal for me. I’ve written before about my mom’s smoking addiction, which has led to her developing COPD and emphysema diseases in her ninth decade. But it’s more than the personal. It’s about the ways that public policy can protect young people, even as they make poor choices.
Follow the money, goes the trope. Who benefits from youngsters buying tobacco and nicotine products? Why do legislators protect them? Why would legislators crack down on vaping, but not cigarettes? Who benefits? If we follow the money, we have to monitor the lobby. Who has power in this game?
We always need to follow the money when we look at the ways that some products are offered to the market and others are restricted. We always need to follow the money when we realize that there are always beneficiaries in a society that has predatory capitalism at its roots. We don’t need more children being exposed to addiction. We shouldn’t outlaw vaping products without outlawing the sale of tobacco to children. I appreciate some manufacturers for joining many others in standing up against companies like Walmart, Walgreen’s and the others that are making big dollars selling tobacco and nicotine products to children. It needs to stop. Now. Legislators need to step up and protect our children from this destructive addiction!
(Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy is available via for booking, wholesale inquiries or for more info visit ).