When Dina Colombo’s freshman son told her what happened at his high school wellness day in the spring of 2018, she was stunned. “Mom, we had this guy talking to us, and he was totally marketing the Juul,” he told her. The rep had taken out a Juul vape to show her son and his friends, who said he told them, “This is the iPhone of vaping. It’s totally safe, and the FDA is going to approve it any day.”
Two friends had gone home to tell their parents and soon the three moms were on the phone together. They researched vaping, and what they discovered shocked them. “The nicotine in one device is equivalent to one to two packs of cigarettes,” Colombo explains. “So while the vape may not have tobacco, it has a high concentration of nicotine.”
The form of nicotine is designed specifically for a smooth inhale, “and then you get like an instant high because there’s such a rush of nicotine in the nicotine salts. It hits the bloodstream and the brain faster, which makes it more addictive,” Colombo describes. “They were not stupid when they created it; they knew what they were doing.”
Colombo, who sits on the board of directors at 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc., knew she needed to create something too. She, along with two other mothers of students from the high school, formed an inspiring alliance to take on Big Tobacco and the vaping industry.
Spreading the word on vaping
In October 2018 — six months after that assembly with the JUUL rep, which was the impetus to launch Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe) — the moms corralled experts and set up an informational meeting called “We Got JUULed” and some 250 parents showed up.
The three sons and moms also took their concerns about the proliferation of vaping to a meeting with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. The boys told the FDA that people were using JUULs in bathrooms at school and charging vape cartridges via their laptops because they look like USB sticks. Kids were even vaping in the classrooms — there’s clothing designed to disguise vapes. “So they kind of educated the FDA on this,” Colombo says.
Today, PAVe is a national advocacy nonprofit run mostly by volunteers to educate parents and kids about the dangers of vaping. And those dangers are real, despite misinformation campaigns online. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nicotine “can harm the developing adolescent brain” and “Using nicotine during adolescence might also increase the risk for future addiction to other drugs.”
In 2019, PAVe worked with then-mayor Bill DiBlasio and other politicians to support the bill banning flavored vapes in New York City, which went into effect in 2020. “Getting the bill passed was the proudest moment,” Colombo says. “We like to say Big Tobacco and JUUL messed with the wrong moms!”
Balancing and prioritizing
Colombo is partner, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer of GreyLion, a private equity firm in New York City, and she’s passionate about her work. She’s also devoted to her two college-age kids and her large Italian family on Long Island. Her husband, Gregg, is from a big, close family too, so there are lots of get-togethers.
When you sit down and talk with Colombo, you notice right away that she oozes calm. She’s friendly, and you feel you know her, even if you haven’t met before. How does she find time for everything and seem so relaxed?
“I think that if there’s a secret, it’s just to constantly reprioritize what’s on your plate,” she says. “And I think it’s important to show my kids that you’re passionate about work and you’re passionate about things outside of work.
“You have to be really honest with yourself on what matters to you and your family and work,” she adds, “and recognize that you can’t be in two places — or work on two things — at the same time.”
When you ask Colombo how she recharges, she says it’s with family. “One of the things we love to do when we’re all home is something called ‘I Love New York Day.’ We just walk around town, we’ll try something new — it’s an unplanned day. We love the Rangers, the Yankees, and will go to a Knicks game if we can,” she explains. “’I Love New York Day’ is something that we cherish, and we always have, since the kids were little.”