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As Juuling popularity rises, Del. lawmakers propose tobacco purchasing age increase to 21

As the mother of a 16-year-old, what scares Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown the most could — at first glance — be mistaken for a long, skinny flash drive. 

"Right now, our teenagers are smoking this twice as quickly as they're smoking cigarettes," Minor-Brown said while holding a Juul. It's a type of e-cigarette that's so discrete teenagers have infamously started smoking them in schools. 

"This is what is killing our kids," she said. 

Minor-Brown, Gov. John Carney, a handful of legislators and dozens of student activists called for the passing of Senate Bill 25 in a Tuesday press conference. The bill, which is authored by Sen. Bryan Townsend and has bipartisan support, would increase the legal purchasing age of all tobacco products, including Juuls, from age 18 to 21. 

House Corrections Committee chair Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown speaks to The News Journal during an interview at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

The American Lung Association, American Heart Association and American Cancer Society point to Juuling as the reason there is more political support this year to increase the tobacco purchasing age in Delaware.

Since Juul exploded on the market in 2015, e-cigarette usage among teens has skyrocketed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018, a significant increase from 1.5 million students in 2017.

Some University of Delaware students are skeptical about the impact this legislation could have.

“You can’t go a single day without somebody blowing a cloud of smoke in your face,” said Jake Lubsen, a 21-year-old UD student who doesn't smoke or vape. 

Right now, seven states — California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oregon — have passed similar legislation.

The National Academy of Medicine has reported that increasing the legal age from 18 to 21 could prevent 223,000 deaths among Americans born between 2000 and 2019.

In Delaware, about 400 kids under age 18 become daily smokers every year, according to the state Division of Public Health. 

A recent report by the American Lung Association estimates 1,440 people die from smoking-related diseases in Delaware every year. 

Carney said at the press conference that raising the tobacco purchasing age will also help reduce the "staggering economic costs" that stem from tobacco-related illnesses. Delaware spends about $500 million annually on medical costs to treat those illnesses. 

"Imagine what we could do with that money used elsewhere," Carney said.

Delaware Governor John Carney speaks during an interview with the News Journal Monday Nov. 19, 2018 at the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington.

While Juul says it does not market to youth, a January 2019 study by Stanford University found that advertising was "patently youth oriented." Juul has maintained it does not market to youth.

JUUL Labs spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement that the company supports raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products, including Juul. 

“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL," he said. "We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated.

For years, tobacco use among young people was consistently dropping, said Jonathan Kirch, the American Heart Association's government relations director for Delaware.

But then Juul came on to the market — and everything changed. Kirch said it "took a year of bad data" to confirm health advocates' worse fears of e-cigarettes' impact. 

"We knew what was going on," he said. "Now, we have the data to prove it."

A Juul electronic cigarette

Julia Chadwick, a 20-year-old art conservation and geology major at UD, agrees there is a growing tobacco problem among young people. But Chadwick believes 18-year-olds have the right to choose to smoke or vape.

She first started using tobacco at age 17, and now smokes cigarettes and vapes. 

"I think that if you can operate a motor vehicle and you can legally be an adult," she said, "you should be able to do and buy whatever you want and put whatever you want into your body."

Cassidy Alvarez, a first year student at UD, also isn't so sure a law will deter young people from seeking tobacco products. The 18-year-old, who describes herself as an avid Juuler, started vaping when she came to campus in the fall. 

She believes teens will still try to get Juuls, even if a law is passed, and might resort to getting them in a "sketchy way."

"Everyone does it," Alvarez said. "I don’t know a college student that doesn’t do it.”

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Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @merenewman.