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Opinion Vaping finally has its ‘Joe Camel’ moment

E-cigarette pods are displayed for sale at Good Guys Vape Shop, in Biddeford, Maine, on Sept. 3. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Christopher Columbus had been in the New World only a few days when he watched from the deck of his flagship as a native paddled toward him in a canoe laden with “some dried leaves, which must be a thing highly valued by them.” His note of this curious sight in his diary for Oct. 15, 1492, is the first European record of a most seductive and destructive commodity: tobacco.

Soon, Spanish explorers were taking their first drags and feeling the subtle surge of nicotine’s exquisite rush. Neither blunt nor blaring, this remarkable drug somehow renders things sharper and calmer simultaneously. No wonder the Europeans got hooked. But nicotine demands a deadly loyalty. Within a generation of Columbus, the progressive priest Bartolomé de las Casas was fretting over the phenomenon we now call addiction.

In other words, all the elements of nicotine peddling were in place by the early 16th century: Pique the curiosity of novices. Lure them to take a few puffs. Then sit back and let addiction work its dark, lucrative magic.

By the 1960s, when I was a boy, the smoking habit was ubiquitous. I remember reading a mystery that referred to the smell of stale cigarette smoke and wondering what smell that was, exactly. Half the world smelled that way. People gave each other ashtrays as gifts. Many of our dads were military veterans, hooked courtesy of Uncle Sam himself, who packed cigarettes in their rations. Many moms smoked also; one brand of cigarettes was marketed specifically as a badge of female achievement: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

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People talk about the sex appeal of cigarettes in cinema, but I remember even more keenly the cigarettes of the movie-watchers. The beam of light from the projection room to the screen took nearly solid form as it passed through the blue haze. If you looked closely enough, you could see the film play out in miniature on slowly rising columns of carcinogenic toxins. It was mesmerizing.

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Some 30 percent of high school seniors smoked daily when I was in school, according to government data. By then, the health risks were well known: We referred to cigarettes as “cancer sticks” and “coffin nails” between puffs. This mass addiction finally began to ebb. Juries and judges turned against Big Tobacco. In 1998, state officials across the country hammered out a $200 billion settlement with cigarette-makers that included a ban on most forms of advertising. With few enticements to pique their interest, kids have turned away. Today, only about 4 percent of high school students smoke cigarettes daily.

I sometimes wonder whether the straw that broke the camel’s back was an actual camel — or rather, a cartoon camel named Joe. In one of the most cynical marketing campaigns of all time, the maker of Camel cigarettes celebrated the 75th anniversary of the brand by pitching an anthropomorphic camel as the epitome of cool. When critics pointed out that children were the obvious target audience for a cartoon dressed like the Fonz — and that seducing children to start smoking a quarter-century after the surgeon general’s definitive report on the deadly hazard of tobacco was flatly outrageous — the company’s stubborn denials rang so hollow that the industry’s last defenders slunk away.

Now the Joe Camel moment has arrived for the United States’ ill-considered vaping industry. So-called e-cigarettes (known officially as “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS) gained federal approval as supposedly safer alternatives to combustible tobacco — and thus a potential life-saver for the roughly 30 million Americans who just can’t kick the habit.

But no matter how solemnly leading manufacturers such as Juul profess their dedication to rescuing smokers, the dirty truth boils down to two words: flavored pods. What Joe Camel was to the coffin nail business, fruit-flavored, mint-flavored — even bubble-gum-flavored — nicotine pods are to the vape industry. They are proof of evil intent.

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Juul’s easily hidden cartridges and kid-friendly drug flavors go a long way toward explaining the epidemic of vaping in U.S. high schools and middle schools. This public-health tragedy has undone decades of progress in fighting the nicotine scourge. According to the latest statistics, thanks to vaping, nicotine use among students has climbed back to 1970s levels.

The only good news here is a much shorter learning curve. A quick backlash against Juul’s kid-hooking tactics spurred the company to pull its most childish flavors from the market last year. (Off-brand fruit-flavored pods to fit Juul cartridges remain easy to find.) And on Wednesday, the Trump administration announced plans to ban most flavored e-cigarettes. Not a moment too soon.

With hundreds of cases of illness and at least six deaths tied to vaping, the idea of safe smoking is revealed as a lie. Smoking kills. It always has. And no cartoon face or minty-fresh flavoring can mask that macabre reality.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Robert Gelbelhoff: The e-cigarette hysteria is getting out of hand

The Post’s View: Everyone should be alarmed by the vaping crisis

Scott Gottlieb: E-cigarettes are not off the hook

Kevin Burns: Vape makers must do more to stop kids from using e-cigarettes

George F. Will: Trying to cut cigarette use by banning vaping might backfire

Tom Miller: Let’s not overreact about e-cigarettes