The Food and Drug Administration is banning most flavored electronic cigarettes, but that isn’t keeping banana ice, sour gummy or cool mint out of the hands of McCracken County High School students.
Blame a policy loophole. When the Trump administration decided to prohibit fruit, mint and dessert flavors in refillable cartridge-based e-cigarettes like Juul, it carved out a few exceptions to mollify the vape shop owners and adult consumers who complained. The much-publicized exemption allows menthol and tobacco flavors.
But a footnote on page 9 of the new policy permits all flavors to continue to be sold in devices that cannot be refilled and are designed to be disposed when empty.
Teenagers have caught on fast.
“Students were telling me that everybody had gone to Puff Bars, which are disposable,” said Lauren Williams, a teacher at McCracken, near Paducah, Ky. “The one we confiscated here this week is Banana Ice. Students are not using Juuls anymore because no one wants menthol or tobacco.”
Juul Labs, the San Francisco-based company that dominates the e-cigarette market, has been widely blamed for igniting the youth vaping epidemic with its fashionable, sleek devices and flavors like mango, mint and creme. The company was feeling so much pressure it voluntarily discontinued all its flavors but menthol and tobacco in the fall.
But the holes in the government’s flavor ban have merely opened the door to an array of competing brands that produce disposables, like Puff Bars, blu, Posh and Stig. The precharged, prefilled devices are made by domestic companies and imported from China. Some have a higher nicotine level than Juul.
Daniella Roth, a high school junior in Newport Beach, Calif., started vaping mint and other flavored Juuls when she was in 10th grade. About five months ago, she said, she switched to Puff Bar, which she buys from other students. Costing between $7 and $10 per disposable e-cigarette, Puff Bar is cheaper than Juul.
“For me it wasn’t about it being easier to get; it was more cost-effective,” Roth said.
“Puff came out as the new popular thing that every single kid was doing, and I hopped on that fad,” Roth explained. “They have flavors like the Juul flavors. It’s basically like smoking a Juul.”
Roth said she is trying to quit but has not yet succeeded — although she is down from vaping all day long to taking just a few hits in the morning and a few more before bed. If she doesn’t vape, she said, “I get all shaky.”
Bennett Kelly, a high school senior from Costa Mesa, Calif., has also switched to Puff Bar.
Kelly said he believes teenagers would stop vaping if the flavors were not available.
“If people just sold straight tobacco flavor vapes, people would want to wean themselves off,” he said. “It’s not as enjoyable.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a longtime tobacco-control advocate, said he and 29 other senators have written to the FDA demanding the agency’s rationale for permitting disposables to stay on the market.
“Cheap, accessible, fruit-flavored vaping devices are tailor-made to ensnare children and teens. President Trump needs to grow a spine and enact the real flavor ban he promised — not this loophole-ridden version that was tailor-made to appease the vaping industry,” Merkley said in an e-mail.
The federal government’s 2019 Youth Tobacco Survey, released by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that a quarter of the nation’s high school students reported vaping within the previous 30 days, up from 20.7% the previous year and 11.7% in 2016.
The increase in teenage vaping, along with the outbreak of a mysterious vaping-related lung disease, led the Trump administration in September to announce that it would ban flavored e-cigarettes, preferred by teenagers, imminently.
The FDA’s final policy allowing menthol e-cigarettes to stay on the market was a compromise that many people had predicted. But the exemption for disposable e-cigarettes was unexpected.