Gabe Albornoz, a Democrat, is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council and chairman of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee. Adam Zimmerman, a smoke-free advocate, lives in Rockville.

The youth e-cigarette epidemic in the United States is getting worse. Preliminary data from the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey show 5 million middle and high schoolers use e-cigarettes, up from 3.6 million in 2018. More than 1 in 4 (27.5 percent) high schoolers report using e-cigarettes over the past 30 days, up from 20.8 percent a year ago.

Overall vaping rates in Montgomery County mirror national averages. Last year, five Montgomery County Public Schools students vaping in school required drug antidotes after falling unconscious. The Maryland Department of Health confirms that at least 43 individuals in our state — including one young adult in Montgomery County — have developed severe vaping-associated lung illnesses, the cause of which remains a mystery to public health authorities.

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We must act swiftly and decisively in response to these alarming numbers. It took decades before we realized the full harm associated with kids using cigarettes. With respect to e-cigarettes, we cannot afford a “wait and see” approach — we know enough about the dangers to act now.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council will hold public hearings on a package of legislation and regulations that will protect our kids from e-cigarettes. We strongly support this package — not just as an elected official and a smoke-free advocate, but as proud Montgomery County residents and parents of young children.

Highlights include:

· A zoning text amendment prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes within a half-mile of any middle or high school. This amendment would apply to 19 of the 22 current vape shops in Montgomery County.

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· A bill prohibiting e-cigarette manufacturers from selling their products to any retailer within a half-mile of any middle or high school. Some 600 retailers in Montgomery County now sell e-cigarettes.

· A bill prohibiting e-cigarette manufacturers from distributing flavored e-cigarettes to retail stores within a mile of any elementary, middle or high school, library, park, playground or recreational facility. This includes mint and menthol, the two flavors used by nearly two-thirds of high school students who use e-cigarettes.

The package has unanimous council support, and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) has pledged to sign whatever reaches his desk. The council’s Health and Human Services Committee will strengthen this package even further after the public hearing, with the aim of full council passage by year’s end.

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These steps are necessary because e-cigarette companies such as Juul and their tobacco industry allies and benefactors continuously and insidiously target kids:

· Researchers have identified more than 15,000 distinct e-cigarette flavors; the vast majority (97 percent) of kids who use e-cigarettes use flavors. Yet Juul has refused to pull mint and menthol because they care more about profit than kids’ health.

· Researchers have determined that Juul’s advertising and marketing tactics were “patently youth-oriented.” To that end, the council recently authorized a lawsuit in federal court against Juul and Altria Group — the parent company of Philip Morris USA — for violating Maryland and federal law by aggressively marketing e-cigarettes to children.

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· Each Juul pod contains as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes, despite conclusions from the U.S. surgeon general and other health authorities that nicotine can harm kids’ brain development.

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We support the many states (including Maryland) that are acting on e-cigarettes. We welcome “Protect Kids: Fight Flavored E-Cigarettes,” a groundbreaking $160 million initiative from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. And we urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to immediately follow through on its commitment to ban all flavored e-cigarettes nationwide, including mint and menthol.

But we must take care of our own house, too. Since enacting one of the nation’s first smoke-free indoor air laws in 2003, Montgomery County has extended smoke-free protections (which include e-cigarettes) to schools, health-care facilities, public housing, parks and outdoor restaurant seating areas. Today, thanks to these and other efforts, Montgomery County has the lowest adult smoking rate in Maryland, part of what makes us the healthiest county in the state.

To avoid losing a new generation of kids to nicotine addiction, Montgomery County must again assert its national leadership on tobacco prevention policies.

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