Every good moral panic needs frightened and outraged parents. And every group of frightened and outraged parents includes a few that want to organize and lead a movement, usually dedicated to abstinence and piety.
Meet Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes. Formed this year at the height of JUUL fever, PAVe (that’s how they spell it) is led by wealthy and influential New Yorkers who take their moralistic war on vaping very seriously, or at least they seem like they do. And unlike an organization you might start with a couple of your friends, this one immediately grabbed national press exposure.
“Meredith Berkman, a mother of four, says she couldn’t sit and wait for the government to stop kids from using Juul,” says a CBS This Morning story from Aug.28. “So she and two other moms recently launched the grassroots group Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes to educate about the dangers of e-cigarettes, advocate against their use and lobby for legislative action.”
The messages on the PAVe website are unlikely to convince teenagers, but they may scare parents. “YOU GOT JUULED,” goes one. “Some rich dudes put a sleek electronic costume on a regular old cigarette and you’re puffing on it like it’s oxygen. Hate to break it to you but…you just got JUULed.” It’s funny to hear the richest people in the country accuse the JUUL founders of being “rich dudes” trying to fool the public.
PAVe has an impressive advisory board, led by Stanford psychologist Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, an anti-vaping activist whose recent work has analyzed e-cigarette advertising. She also developed the California Tobacco Prevention Toolkit for the state’s tobacco tax-funded Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. Halpern-Fisher’s involvement probably explains why all of PAVe’s “websites we like” page are from California.
The advisory board also includes two pediatricians, a child psychiatrist, and the vice chancellor of a private school — with campuses in New York, London, Seoul, Shanghai, and Dubai — that is “dedicated to igniting the spark of genius in every child.” Well, maybe not every child — just the ones whose parents can afford $46,900 a year for kindergarten tuition.
Private schools and pediatricians are at the heart of the JUUL panic, so PAVe definitely has the right advisors. They have connections too. A Google search of PAVe’s founders returns lots of charity luncheons and benefit “galas” hosted in homes in the Hamptons, and husbands who are high-powered investors. There are images of PAVe co-founder Meredith Berkman posing with then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has since become the largest funder of anti-vaping tobacco control activism in the world.
These are wealthy people with influence, and they’re used to getting their way. Meredith Berkman once sued a snack food manufacturer for $50 million because a product’s nutritional content label was incorrect. The resulting weight gain caused her “mental anguish, outrage and indignation,” she claimed, and the company recalled the product.
The founders are not above using their own kids as props to drive the anti-vaping campaign. They name them and feature them in multiple pictures on the site. They also recount how their sons testified at a Westchester County Tobacco 21 hearing. (Advisor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher hasn’t shied away from involving her daughter in her advocacy work either.)
“In June 2018, PAVe sponsored an ‘iphone-athon’ in support of a bill that would ban the sale and distribution of flavored e-cigarette pods in New York state,” says the PAVe site. “We organized dozens of like-minded people—including teens recruited by our kids, who spent the day alongside us—send emails and make phone calls lobbying for legislators to pass this important bill that ultimately was defeated. We will fight for this bill until it passes and will lend our support to any other legislation that aims to restrict the marketing and sales of JUUL and other e-cigarettes to our kids.”
If you think PAVe is a joke, remember that people laughed at the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union too — until they helped push the country to support a Constitutional amendment that banned alcohol for a decade. The moral panic around marijuana in the 1930’s led to prohibition around the world that’s still going strong in most states and countries. Commissioner Gottlieb already wants to take the nicotine out of cigarettes. Think it couldn’t go further?
The anti-juuling moms are promoting an email campaign to pressure FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to ban flavors and online sales immediately — as Gottlieb has already threatened to do. The letter is heavy on emotion and light on substance, but that doesn’t mean the FDA chief won’t take the authors seriously. Doctor-investor-Trump appointee Gottlieb has a whole lot more in common with rich Westchester volunteer activists than he does with vapers or smokers.
Dear Commissioner Gottlieb,
I am writing to you today as a concerned parent and also as a member of the grassroots advocacy group, Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVe). I am deeply worried about what you have publicly referred to as the “epidemic” of e-cigarette, and specifically JUUL, use by kids across the country.
As you know, e-cigarette companies use candy-like flavors to lure our children into trying their highly-addictive products that contain as much nicotine as 1.5 packs of cigarettes. Extensive research has shown that nicotine exposure during adolescence will adversely affect cognitive function and development of the developing brain, and will re-wire it for other types of addiction.
Since JUUL, other e-cigarettes, and their ‘pods’ are available online, our children are able to buy them (often in bulk) without our knowledge. And, we all know that vape shops do not bother to check kids’ IDs to make sure they are at least 18.
Kids across the country are JUULing everywhere – at home, at school, in the streets – and they are becoming addicted in record numbers! The verb “to JUUL” has become part of our vocabulary.
On September 19, you announced that e-cigarette companies have 60 days to present plans to solve this. Why are we waiting even one more day?? Each day that passes brings us one step closer to having an entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine!
We implore you to regulate e-cigarette companies like JUUL and ban all flavors and online sales immediately – Please save our children!
The well-connected PAVe founders are already being heard. Aside from the CBS This Morning media debut, they’re featured in a Wall Street Journal article — and you can bet there will be lots more news coverage to come. Money and position tend to get the attention of politicians and the mainstream press. And the FDA has already shown it is willing to pitch in with its own extreme anti-vaping propaganda.
They’ve got a readymade constituency of like-minded helicopter parents around the country willing to take up torches and pitchforks and join in the attack. Vapers — and especially the vaping industry — don’t have much of a response either. Helping smokers improve their health, tobacco harm reduction, and “adult choice” will lose to saving the children every time. We need better arguments.
Where is JUUL’s campaign in defense of innovation? Where are the trade groups telling the world that vapers have a right not to smoke? Where are the juuling college students standing up and saying there’s no shame in vaping, that nicotine is a good thing? Where are the sympathetic academic experts telling their colleagues that most tobacco control science is junk? If vaping doesn’t stop playing defense, terrible things will keep happening. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting worse every day.