The fight to protect our kids from tobacco is facing new threats both here in North Dakota and in Congress.

Our state lawmakers voted to eliminate BreatheND — also known as the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy — which has helped cut youth cigarette smoking in half since its creation in 2008.

In Congress, tobacco companies are pushing legislation that would greatly weaken Food and Drug Administration rules to protect kids from electronic cigarettes and cigars — products that threaten to hook a new generation and undermine the enormous progress we've made. Tobacco companies have introduced a huge assortment of candy-flavored e-cigarettes and cigars, making them wildly popular with kids.

To keep making progress against tobacco, our federal lawmakers must ensure the FDA has the tools it needs to protect the nation's kids.

Last year, the FDA took an important step by issuing new rules for cigars and e-cigarettes — including a nationwide ban on sales to minors. However, instead of supporting these efforts, Congress is considering two measures that would dramatically weaken FDA oversight of these products.

The first bill would make it far more difficult for the FDA to protect kids from e-cigarettes and cigars already on the market, including the many candy-flavored products introduced in recent years. The second would completely exempt "large and premium" cigars from FDA oversight — a category defined so broadly that it could be stretched to apply to low-cost, flavored cigars. Tobacco companies are working to include these proposals in a spending bill Congress must pass this month to keep the federal government running.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees FDA funding, should make certain that neither of these harmful proposals become law. Especially at a time when North Dakota has just lost the agency that helps prevent tobacco use, Hoeven and our other federal lawmakers must protect North Dakota's kids and not weaken the FDA's authority over e-cigarettes and cigars.

These proposals don't make any sense considering the lure of these products to kids.

Today there are more than 7,700 different flavors of e-cigarettes and about 250 different flavors of cigars, with choices like gummy bear, peanut butter cup and cotton candy for e-cigarettes and lemonade, cherry dynamite and wild berry for cigars. Kids admit these flavors are appealing. Among current youth e-cigarette users, more than 80 percent say they are drawn by the available flavors, according to a government study. Nearly 75 percent of youth cigar smokers say the same thing.

It's no surprise, then, that so many kids are using these products. Nationwide, use of e-cigarettes among high schoolers grew by a factor of 10 between 2011 and 2015, climbing to 16 percent, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Here in North Dakota, the problem is even worse: 22 percent of high school students use e-cigarettes compared to 12 percent who smoke regular cigarettes.

In addition, more high school boys in North Dakota now smoke cigars than cigarettes —13.2 percent compared to 11.9 percent for traditional cigarettes.

According to a 2016 report by the surgeon general, the nicotine in e-cigarettes is highly addictive and "can harm the developing adolescent brain." The surgeon general also concluded, "E-cigarette use is strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products among youth and young adults, including combustible tobacco products."

Cigar smoke, meanwhile, contains the same harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, and has been shown to cause cancer of the lungs, esophagus, larynx and oral cavity.

By weakening FDA oversight of tobacco products that attract kids, the proposals before Congress pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of America's youth. Hoeven should do all he can to stop them from being enacted into law.

Stephen McDonough is a Bismarck pediatrician.

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