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As Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman, two of the co-founders of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe) like to put it, “Big Tobacco messed with the wrong moms.” Along with their friend Dina Alessi, these New York City moms created PAVe in April 2018 as a grassroots response to the youth vaping epidemic that has impacted millions of American families. The catalyst was their discovery that a JUUL representative had entered their sons’ high school through an outside anti-addiction group, without the school’s knowledge, and told an assembly of 9th graders that JUUL was “totally safe” and would receive FDA approval “any day. ” Their Congressional testimony about this incident – and that of Berkman’s son Caleb Mintz and Furhman’s son Phillip – was cited by the FDA as evidence that JUUL marketed its highly-addictive flavored e-cigarette to kids.
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Building the first national parent voice in the fight against the tobacco industry was never part of the plan. Sitting together around their kitchen tables, scouring the Internet for information about JUUL, they realized that the wildly successful company was using social media to target teens with a product whose flavored pods contained more nicotine than an entire package of cigarettes. And they learned teen use was so pervasive that “JUULing” had become a verb. They launched a website to educate parents like themselves about an adolescent public-health crisis that was still very much under the radar. Within hours, they began receiving emails from people across the country whose JUUL-dependent kids were suffering from extreme nicotine addiction – they, too, were furious at JUUL but these parents were asking for help. The women realized that they needed to take action – and that meant fighting for laws to protect kids from e-cigarettes.
“We would have preferred to join a group like ours rather than start one,” says Berkman, pointing out that she and her friends searched in vain for a Mothers-Against-Drunk-Driving-of-Vaping. “This crisis chose us, not the other way around. We are accidental activists,” added Furhman. “We just knew we could not allow JUUL to keep going after kids.”
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Things sped up from there. The moms began meeting with pediatricians, addiction psychiatrists and other experts in their own backyard and building out from there, creating important partnerships with and between institutions and researchers around the country, from Stanford Medical School to the Harvard School of Public Health. (The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative, longtime leaders in tobacco control, became early supporters after the moms stumbled upon them during a Google search.) Heading to Washington, DC with their sons, they met with any elected officials who would listen and eventually with FDA leadership, sounding the alarm about youth vaping, but at the same time requesting that their JUUL- in-school story remain confidential. They knew it would have maximum impact if the company had no time to prepare a response. The perfect moment to go public arrived in July 2019 when Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economics and Consumer Policy led a two-day hearing about JUUL that included Berkman, Furhman and their sons along with others witnesses who shone an ugly light on JUUL’s targeting of young people. (In addition to seeking access to high schools, JUUL even ran a summer camp for younger kids.)
The hearing – and Caleb and Phillip’s testimony in particular-created a firestorm of negative international publicity that burned JUUL’s tech-chic reputation and seriously damaged the unicorn’s enormous bottom line. PAVe’s army of passionate parents continued to grow, and Furhman and Berkman (who are also full-time volunteer) continued expanding their nimble volunteer-powered nonprofit that today includes both advocacy (501C4) and education (501C3) initiatives (the latter’s efforts led by founding partner Miriam Boublik who also donates her time.)
PAVe’s second annual “Clear the Vapor” conference last month, co-sponsored by CVS Health, is but one marker of the group’s organic, ongoing success. Virtual and free so it would remain highly accessible to parents, the event drew over 2 thousand participants eager to hear fellow parents, educators, public-health advocates, and nationally-elected officials doing a deeper dive into all aspects of youth tobacco use.
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“It’s a call-to-action for parents like us who want to protect the next generation from becoming lifetime customers of Big Tobacco,” said Alessi, who works in private equity and moderated a panel on why tobacco investments are incompatible with ESG principles.
Meanwhile, as PAVe, in Boublik’s words, seeks to “move the goalpost” with regional and national webinars and parent virtual and in-person testimony at state and federal hearings, youth vaping continues to rage. Its growth has outpaced federal action limiting teen access to flavored e-cigarettes including JUUL, PuffBar, and other major industry players that remain on the market without full regulation. This despite a federal court order requiring the FDA to finish reviewing these products by September 2021, a regulatory process already delayed for years. In late May, FDA filed court papers stating it would further postpone the completion of this process until July 2023. (PAVe is currently weighing legal options.)
When asked what lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, Berkman and Furhman offered the following:
Follow Your Instincts
The day after their discovery that a JUUL rep informed their sons’ ninth-grade assembly – without other adults present – that JUUL was “totally safe”, Berkman, Furhman and Alessi pledged to keep this shocking incident a secret. “We knew we would testify about it before Congress,” she says. “To this day, we have no idea why.”
Be Gracious, Humble, and Fearless
We would be nowhere without the wisdom, generosity and partnership of our colleagues in tobacco control. We are good listeners who know what we do not know – and are grateful to those willing to teach us.
There Is No Shame in Addiction
If it were not for our children, we would not have known what happened in school that day. And if it were not for our children being honest about their vaping addiction PAVe would not be able to work on the initiatives that we are working on. Being honest and transparent about your experiences and your journey — no matter how personally painful is the key to success.
“In 2018, we never saw ourselves as social entrepreneurs or disruptors, adds Meredith. Today, we can not see ourselves any other way. PAVe is a call to action for all who want to protect our kids from becoming lifetime customers of Big Tobacco While we are sickened that this is a growing epidemic, we are grateful that our network of volunteers is growing to help us fight a good fight.