This post originally appeared as an op-ed in The Enquirer on Novemeber 1, 2021.

By Dr. Terry Brooks

Building strong families and communities is the key to unlocking the potential of our next generation. Unfortunately, Kentucky leads the nation in too many cancer statistics—including the rate of new lung cancer diagnoses. These chronic health issues prevent our youth from getting the right start.

Everyone, from policymakers to advocates to educators to parents, needs to be involved in the effort to keep vaping products like Juul away from our children. That’s why I’m so alarmed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to drag its feet in regulating or outright banning flavored e-cigarette and vaping devices. This month, the federal public health agency even gave its first-ever seal of approval to a vaping product for sale in the United States.

Kentucky Youth Advocates with our partner, the Foundation for a Health Kentucky, published a recent survey of tobacco and vaping use among middle and high school students. The results were shocking. More than one-third of students we asked reported the pandemic had increased use of e-cigarettes, vapes and other tobacco products. Children as young as 10 are puffing on vapes, frequently using flavored products that remain on the market through regulatory loopholes.

The problem extends beyond Kentucky. A national study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 2 million middle and high students are currently using vaping products. The number is trending downward, in part as a result of a federal law championed by Senator Mitch McConnell to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21, which was codified into Kentucky law thanks to efforts by state Senator Ralph Alvarado. But the ongoing pandemic leads many public health experts to question if the positive trend will continue.

The risks of youth vaping can’t be overstated. Data from Yale researchers have shown the dangerous chemicals in vaping products can reach a teen’s brain in about 10 seconds. Frequent use can lead to long-lasting problems with focus, memory, learning and even future addictive behaviors. Kentucky’s long history with nicotine-related illnesses should put us on high alert to protect the most vulnerable from these dangerous health challenges.

And the reality is that nearly 90 percent of tobacco users first try a tobacco product by age 18. But, if they did not start using nicotine by age 26, they are likely to never start.

The FDA must take action now to stop corporations from marketing vaping products to minors. The agency has already missed a deadline of September 9th to approve or deny e-cigarette manufacturers’ applications to continuing selling products in the country. It must also close any loophole that allows intentionally predatory practices, like fruity flavorings, from remaining on store shelves.

How did young people become so drawn to these products in the first place? There’s the easy answer—the peer pressure to “look cool”—but also a much more sinister one. Vaping manufacturers like Juul spent years and big bucks designing products and fruity flavors specifically targeted toward youth users.

When parents, educators, and public health advocates called for a crackdown on these products obviously marketed toward children, Juul hired a multi-billion-dollar consulting firm called McKinsey and Company to help save their business. After studying Juul’s underage customers, McKinsey recommended Juul replace its fruit pods with mint flavors. The strategy worked, leading to big profits and a new wave of underage users for Juul.

The name “McKinsey” may be familiar to Kentucky families. The Courier Journal reported earlier this year the Jefferson County Board of Education launched a federal lawsuit against the firm for endangering Kentucky’s children with opioids. McKinsey’s collaboration with Juul and its history of double-dealing should give everyone pause as we hope for the FDA to make the right decision.

E-cigarettes are nicotine-packed products that prime the adolescent brain for addiction and can cause lasting damage to brain development, among other negative health outcomes. The FDA must ban Juul and other e-cigarette producers from continuing to fuel the youth vaping epidemic. With the health and future of Kentucky’s children on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher.