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Vaping Comes Under Fire

FILE - A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine, Aug. 28, 2019.
FILE - A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine, Aug. 28, 2019.

Amid an alarming surge in vaping among teenagers, Congress recently approved an unprecedented measure to curb tobacco and e-cigarette use nationwide, especially among teens.

Congress voted to increase the legal age to buy tobacco and vape products from 18 to 21 as part of a major fiscal 2020 spending agreement. First introduced in May by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, the "Tobacco-Free Youth Act" has bipartisan support and aims to tackle youth vaping.

President Donald Trump had signaled his support of the measure and signed the underlying legislation Dec. 20. However, under pressure from his own campaign manager and special interests, Trump appears to be reconsidering a plan he unveiled in September to reduce youth vaping by banning flavored e-cigarettes — an approach that experts say would be far more effective than raising the legal smoking age to 21.

Despite warnings from government agencies and anti-vaping advocacy groups, the prevalence of minors using e-cigarettes has doubled since 2017, according to data compiled by the University of Michigan and released last September by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Juul, the most popular e-cigarette in the U.S., controlled 75 percent of the market in 2018 and is at the center of what the U.S. Surgeon General has called an "epidemic of youth e-cigarette use." While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that no one brand is responsible for the outbreak of illnesses, as an industry leader, Juul is the focus of most finger-pointing, including from the surgeon general.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced a lawsuit against Juul on Dec. 12, echoing attorneys general in D.C., New York, California and North Carolina who have filed similar lawsuits this year. Multiple school districts around the country have also taken legal action against Juul.

Juul did not return phone calls or emails from VOA.

FILE - A woman buys refills for her Juul at a smoke shop in New York, Dec. 20, 2018.
FILE - A woman buys refills for her Juul at a smoke shop in New York, Dec. 20, 2018.

Big tobacco's influence

Officials have pointed to a forerunner — the tobacco industry — which they say provided a blueprint for the embattled company and others like it.

"Juul basically took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook by marketing its products in a manner that was appealing to underage youth," said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a press conference Nov. 19.

Juul's advertising in its first three years on the market was "patently youth oriented," according to a Stanford study, contradicting Juul's claim that their customers of choice are adult tobacco smokers. The study found that Juul recruited online influencers and focused its marketing on social media websites popular with youth.

A memo from the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy accused Juul of deploying a "sophisticated program" to introduce its products to children. The memo revealed Juul paid $134,000 to a Baltimore charter school to organize a "holistic health education program" for low-income students. Emails obtained by the subcommittee showed that one Juul executive described the school programs as "eerily similar" to how tobacco companies market.

Juul has repeatedly denied marketing its products to teens.

"Put simply, Juul Labs isn't Big Tobacco," said Juul Labs co-founder James Monsees as he testified in a congressional hearing in July.

However, Altria Group, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, whose subsidiary Philip Morris USA owns the popular Marlboro brand, invested $12.8 billion in Juul last year, acquiring a 35 percent stake and bolstering suspicions that e-cigarette and vape companies were influenced by major tobacco brands.

Katy Talento, a former adviser to Trump on health care policy, said she experienced the tobacco effect firsthand.

WATCH: Student Union: Former Trump Adviser Says Juul Mislead the White House

"After some of these meetings took place in the White House between Juul and the Republican lobbyists and the White House staff who work on health care issues, they announced that they were being bought by Altria," Talento told VOA. "So they were literally wedding planning with Big Tobacco while they were insisting to us that they were trying to rid the world of tobacco."

Juul isn't the only e-cigarette maker backed by the large tobacco companies. Most of the top e-cigarettes and vape producers in the U.S. are owned by tobacco giants: Imperial Brand acquired Blu from its rival R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 2014, whose subsidiary owns the popular Vuse vaporizers. British American Tobacco, second in the world only to Philip Morris International, launched Vype in 2013.

White House meeting

Top vaping representatives, tobacco executives and public health officials clashed in a televised meeting at the White House in late November. K.C. Crosthwaite, a former Altria executive who become CEO of Juul in September, was one of the executives in the room.

During the meeting, Crosthwaite said Juul could not ignore the data that suggests youth vaping is a "serious problem" and that Juul was "a part of it," and he expressed willingness to support the FDA's determinations.

Crosthwaite's statements appear to fall in line with Juul's recent actions. Following condemnation from the FDA and public outcry, Juul stopped selling its popular fruity and mint flavors and suspended all advertising in the U.S.

Vaping representatives in the Cabinet Room meeting were quick to point out that not only did the flavor removals fail to hurt Juul's business, it helped. When prodded by the president, Crosthwaite admitted that "business grew."

Anti-vape campaign

According to the CDC, 54 people have died and 2,506 people have been hospitalized from EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) in the U.S. Previously identified as a likely culprit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December that a recent study suggests vitamin E acetate is "closely associated" with EVALI.

Most of the illnesses and deaths linked to vaping were caused by THC-containing products, especially counterfeit THC products and those obtained from second-hand or informal sources like online sellers. THC is a psychoactive element of marijuana.

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the cases of mysterious vaping-related illnesses have been declining since September.

Some states and cities, including New York City, have restricted the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, although exceptions are generally made for tobacco and menthol flavors. Many states have also implemented taxes and raised the legal age to 21 to combat youth vaping. In Massachusetts, the governor implemented a temporary ban on the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products starting Sept. 24. That ban ended Dec. 24.

Uncertainty and confusion continues to persist in the vaping debate. A new study has concluded that the use of e-cigarettes increases the risk of developing chronic lung diseases, but less so than smoking.

Following a 2016 ruling that placed vaping products under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration's (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, vape producers have until May 2020 to submit their products, many of which were largely unregulated, for review by the FDA.

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Writer offers packing tips for international students

FILE - The UCLA campus on April 25, 2019.
FILE - The UCLA campus on April 25, 2019.

Deciding what to bring to college can be daunting.

A student from Singapore writes about her must-haves as an international student in the U.S.

Read it here. (April 2024)

Siblings flourish at University of Cincinnati

FILE - The University of Cincinnati pep band plays during their spring NCAA college football game, April 2, 2016, in Cincinnati.
FILE - The University of Cincinnati pep band plays during their spring NCAA college football game, April 2, 2016, in Cincinnati.

Two sets of siblings -- on from Kuwait and one from Saudi Arabia -- talk about their experiences as international students at the University of Cincinnati in the U.S. state of Ohio.

Read the story here. (April 2024)

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Philadelphia's Drexel University

FILE - Signs lie next to a tent pro-Palestinian students and faculty of Drexel University, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania erected at an encampment at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, April 25, 2024.
FILE - Signs lie next to a tent pro-Palestinian students and faculty of Drexel University, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania erected at an encampment at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, April 25, 2024.

Pro-Palestinian protesters set up a new encampment at Drexel University in Philadelphia over the weekend, prompting a lockdown of school buildings, a day after authorities thwarted an attempted occupation of a school building at the neighboring University of Pennsylvania campus.

After several hundred demonstrators marched from Philadelphia's City Hall to west Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, Drexel said in a statement that about 75 protesters began to set up an encampment on the Korman Quad on the campus. About a dozen tents remained Sunday, blocked off by barricades and monitored by police officers. No arrests were reported.

Drexel President John Fry said in a message Saturday night that the encampment "raises understandable concerns about ensuring everyone's safety," citing what he called "many well-documented instances of hateful speech and intimidating behavior at other campus demonstrations." University buildings were "open only to those with clearance from Drexel's Public Safety," he said.

Authorities at Drexel, which has about 22,000 students, were monitoring the demonstration to ensure it was peaceful and didn't disrupt normal operations, and that "participants and passersby will behave respectfully toward one another," Fry said.

"We will be prepared to respond quickly to any disruptive or threatening behavior by anyone," Fry said, vowing not to tolerate property destruction, "harassment or intimidation" of students or staff or threatening behavior of any kind, including "explicitly racist, antisemitic, or Islamophobic" speech. Anyone not part of the Drexel community would not be allowed "to trespass into our buildings and student residences," he said.

On Friday night, members of Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine had announced an action at the University of Pennsylvania's Fisher-Bennett Hall, urging supporters to bring "flags, pots, pans, noise-makers, megaphones" and other items.

The university said campus police, supported by city police, removed the demonstrators Friday night, arresting 19 people, including six University of Pennsylvania students. The university's division of public safety said officials found "lock-picking tools and homemade metal shields," and exit doors secured with zip ties and barbed wire, windows covered with newspaper and cardboard and entrances blocked.

Authorities said seven people arrested would face felony charges, including one accused of having assaulted an officer, while a dozen were issued citations for failing to disperse and follow police commands.

The attempted occupation of the building came a week after city and campus police broke up a two-week encampment on the campus, arresting 33 people, nine of whom were students and two dozen of whom had "no Penn affiliation," according to university officials.

On Sunday, dozens of George Washington University graduates walked out of commencement ceremonies, disrupting university President Ellen Granberg's speech, in protest over the ongoing siege of Gaza and last week's clearing of an on-campus protest encampment that involved police use of pepper spray and dozens of arrests.

The ceremony, at the base of the Washington Monument, started peacefully with fewer than 100 protesters demonstrating across the street in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture. But as Granberg began speaking, at least 70 students among the graduates started chanting and raising signs and Palestinian flags. The students then noisily walked out as Granberg spoke, crossing the street to a rapturous response from the protesters.

Students and others have set up tent encampments on campuses around the country to protest the Israel-Hamas war, pressing colleges to cut financial ties with Israel. Tensions over the war have been high on campuses since the fall but demonstrations spread quickly following an April 18 police crackdown on an encampment at Columbia University.

Nearly 3,000 people have been arrested on U.S. campuses over the past month. As summer break approaches, there have been fewer new arrests and campuses have been calmer. Still, colleges have been vigilant for disruptions to commencement ceremonies.

President Joe Biden told the graduating class at Morehouse College on Sunday, which included some students wearing keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes, that he heard their voices of protest and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking. Biden said given what he called a "humanitarian crisis" there, he had called for "an immediate cease-fire" and return of hostages taken by Hamas.

The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian militants still hold about 100 captives, while Israel's military offensive has left more than 35,000 people in Gaza dead, according to the territory’s health ministry, which doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants.

update

Biden tells Morehouse graduates that he hears their voices of protest over war in Gaza

President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College that he heard their voices of protest over the Israel-Hamas war, and that scenes from the conflict in Gaza have been heartbreaking.

"I support peaceful nonviolent protest," he told students, some who wore keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. "Your voices should be heard, and I promise you I hear them."

The president told the crowd that it was a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that's why I've called for an immediate cease-fire to stop the fighting" and bring home the hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The comments, toward the end of his address that also reflected on American democracy and his role in safeguarding it, were the most direct recognition to U.S. students about the campus protests that have swept across the country.

Morehouse's announcement that Biden would be the commencement speaker drew some backlash among the school's faculty and supporters who oppose Biden's handling of the war. Some Morehouse alumni circulated an online letter condemning school administrators for inviting Biden and soliciting signatures to pressure Morehouse President David Thomas to rescind it.

The letter claimed that Biden's approach to Israel amounted to support of genocide in Gaza and was out of step with the pacifism expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse's most famous graduate.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people. Israel's offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to local health officials.

Some members of the graduating class showed support for Palestinians in Gaza by tying keffiyeh scarves around their shoulders on top of their black graduation robes. One student draped himself in a Palestinian flag. On the stage behind the president, academics unfurled a Democratic Republic of Congo flag.

Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher shows his mortarboard with a protest image representing a Palestinian flag as President Joe Biden speaks to graduating students at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The country has been mired in an ongoing civil war that has plunged the nation into violence and displaced millions of people. Many racial justice advocates have called for greater attention to the conflict and for greater attention in the US to the conflict as well as American aid in ending the violence.

"Thank you God for this 'woke' class of 2024 that is in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times," the Rev. Claybon Lea Jr. said during a prayer at the start of the commencement.

The class valedictorian, DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher, said at the close of his speech that it was his duty to speak on the war in Gaza and that it was important to recognize that both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered.

"From the comfort of our homes, we watch an unprecedented number of civilians mourn the loss of men, women and children, while calling for the release of all hostages he said. "It is my stance as a Morehouse man, nay as a human being, to call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip."

Biden stook and shook his hand after Fletcher finished.

The speech, and a separate one Biden is giving later Sunday in the Midwest, is part of a burst of outreach to Black constituents by the president, who has watched his support among these voters soften since their strong backing helped put him in the Oval Office in 2020.

President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.
President Joe Biden, right, congratulates salutatorian Dwayne Allen Terrell II, left, as valedictorian DeAngelo Jeremiah Fletcher looks on at the Morehouse College commencement, May 19, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

After speaking at Morehouse in Atlanta, Biden will travel to Detroit to address an NAACP dinner.

Georgia and Michigan are among a handful of states that will help decide November's expected rematch between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden narrowly won Georgia and Michigan in 2020 and needs to repeat — with a boost from strong Black voter turnout in both cities.

Biden spent the back end of the past week reaching out to Black constituents. He met with plaintiffs and relatives of those involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He also met with members of the "Divine Nine" Black fraternities and sororities and spoke with members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

In Detroit, Biden was set to visit a Black-owned small business before delivering the keynote address at the NAACP's Freedom Fund dinner, which traditionally draws thousands of attendees. The speech gives Biden a chance to reach thousands of people in Wayne County, an area that has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic but has shown signs of resistance to his reelection bid.

Wayne County also holds one of the largest Arab American populations in the nation, predominantly in the city of Dearborn. Leaders there were at the forefront of an "uncommitted" effort that received over 100,000 votes in the state's Democratic primary and spread across the country.

A protest rally and march against Biden's visit are planned for Sunday afternoon in Dearborn. Another protest rally is expected later that evening outside Huntington Place, the dinner venue.

US remains top choice for Indian students going abroad

FILE - Students attend classes in Ahmedabad, India, Sept. 1, 2021.
FILE - Students attend classes in Ahmedabad, India, Sept. 1, 2021.

About 69% of Indian students traveling abroad for their studies chose the United States, according to a Oxford International’s Student Global Mobility Index. Other popular choices were the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Education Times reports the main influencers for deciding where to study abroad – for Indian students and others – were parents. (April 2024)

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