Op-ed: Ban flavored tobacco, protect health of our youths

Nov 14, 2019 | Newsroom

This op-ed was originally published in the Boston Business Journal.

By Dennis Leonard and Dr. Joseph Dill

Ask any dentist from Springfield to Boston and they'll tell you the same thing: Candy is bad for your teeth. Today, however, we're seeing young people shift from eating sweets to inhaling the candy-like flavors of nicotine that are found in the cartridges of e-cigarettes and vape pens. These flavored tobacco products have severe negative effects on the overall health, including oral health, of adolescent users. We must act fast to protect the health of our young citizens by permanently banning all flavored tobacco products. 

Like the rest of the country, Massachusetts is facing a youth vaping epidemic. According to the state Department of Public Health, in 2017 two-in-five Massachusetts high school students reported trying e-cigarettes and one in five reported using an e-cigarette at least once a day. The use of e-cigarettes among Massachusetts high schoolers is nearly three times greater than the use of cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco combined. This is by design: e-cigarette and vaping companies are explicitly marketing their products to children, using names and flavors like "tutti fruitti," "bubble gum," and "cotton candy." In fact, the majority of teenagers report that these candy flavors were the reason they first tried an e-cigarette.

E-cigarette and vape pen usage is highly damaging for developing brains, lungs, and hearts. Many people aren't aware of the high levels of nicotine found in e-cigarette products. One pod can contain as much nicotine as roughly 20 cigarettes. For adolescent brains, nicotine can lead to mood disorders and impulsivity — even permanent changes in brain chemistry. Nicotine is not the only substance found in e-cigarettes that is harming our young people. Chemicals produced by e-cigarette smoke can cause lung disease and heart disease over the long term. 

Vaping also severely impacts oral health, compounding many of the overall health risks and producing long-term threats of dental decay, gum disease, and cancer. Chemicals highly prevalent in e-cigarettes, like propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde can harm both hard and soft tissue in the mouth. The resultant dry mouth allows bacteria to stick to teeth and cause tooth decay. The nicotine in e-cigarettes reduces blood flow in the mouth, resulting in gum disease and — in extreme situations — the permanent loss of teeth. Moreover, oral health issues can compound the other health problems that stem from smoking e-cigarettes. Poor oral health is linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, for example, and can worsen chronic inflammation from lung diseases. 

Poor oral and overall health in adolescence frequently leads to even worse oral and overall health during adulthood. While e-cigarettes have been marketed as tools to help adults kick a cigarette habit, the reality is that e-cigarettes are much more likely to lead kids to nicotine addiction in adulthood and cause harmful effects. A healthy smile affects every part of life, from proudly shaking the principal's hand at a high school graduation to confidently heading into a first job interview. If we want to set our children up for success from the beginning, we cannot allow them to easily purchase and use flavored tobacco products.

The good news is, we can limit the number of children and teenagers harmed by these products. By declaring a public health emergency and temporarily banning the sale of vaping products in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has demonstrated his leadership and willingness to tackle a major public health crisis in the state. Now it's time to go a step further. We look forward to working with the governor and the General Court to permanently ban flavored tobacco products in our state and protect the oral and overall health of Massachusetts youth.

Dennis Leonard is the president and CEO of Delta Dental of Massachusetts. Dr. Joseph Dill is the Head of Dental Science at the Delta Dental Institute.