New federal limits on flavored e-cigarettes went into effect on Feb. 6. The policy, which prohibits the sale of mint, fruit and candy-like flavors in refillable e-cigarettes, was billed as a fix for the growing national epidemic of youth vaping.
According to The New York Times, however, the Trump administration inserted loopholes into the new policy in an attempt to appease vape shop owners and adult vaping consumers who complained about proposed restrictions.
The Flavored Disposables Loophole
A footnote on page 9 exempts flavored disposable e-cigarettes from the ban, permitting all flavors — including fruity and sweet flavors — to continue to be sold, as the Times reported. This means that the new restrictions are limited to refillable, reusable vapes, such as those sold by Juul Labs.
This loophole has opened the door to an array of competing brands that produce fruity and candy-flavored disposables, such as Puff Bar, Posh, blu and Stig, as reported by the Times. Some disposable e-cigarettes deliver more nicotine than a Juul pod, which itself contains as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“These disposable, completely self-contained e-cigarettes like Puff Bar and others share all of the characteristics that made Juul a problem,” Kevin Schroth, associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health’s Center for Tobacco Studies, told the Times.
Puff Bar sells more than a dozen disposable pod varieties with names and flavors that may sound appealing to teens, including Banana Ice, O.M.G (Orange, Mango, Grapefruit) and Pink Lemonade. Puff Bar’s disposable cartridges contain up to 50 ml of nicotine to deliver “an accurate cigarette-style throat hit,” according to the company. In contrast, a Marlboro Red cigarette contains just 1.0 mg of nicotine.
Now teens around the country are switching to disposable vaping products in search of the fruity and dessert-like flavors they prefer, as the Times reported, suggesting the restriction on refillable vapes may do little to contain the current crisis. Disposables also happen to be cheaper than refillable cartridges, according to The Washington Post.
“Students were telling me that everybody had gone to Puff Bars, which are disposable,” Lauren W. Williams, a teacher at McCracken County High School in Paducah, Kentucky, told the Times. “The one we confiscated here this week is Banana Ice.”
Maryland Closes the Loophole
On Monday, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot took bold action to close the disposables loophole. He told his field enforcement division to halt sales of all disposable e-cigarettes, not just flavored ones, and to seize any unsold products, as reported by the Washington Post.
At a news conference in Annapolis, Franchot said that collective inaction was leading to nicotine addiction for thousands of youth. He described the flavored disposables loophole as an “entrance ramp for young people,” according to the Post.
“It’s just not acceptable to stand by for an hour longer,” Franchot said. “Wake up. This is happening. Right in front of our eyes.”
The Menthol Loophole
Meanwhile, critics of the new federal restrictions point to other flaws in the policy, such as carving out an exception for menthol, a mint-like flavor. Companies can continue to sell the menthol flavor in refillable e-cigarettes.
Public health experts warn that mint-like menthol appeals to youths.
“Menthol — which is an ingredient in both mint and menthol flavored products — provides a cooling sensation that masks the harsh taste of nicotine, making it easier for children to get hooked. The idea that menthol is an adult flavor is just plain wrong,” Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in an organizational statement that sharply criticized the new federal policy.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Responses
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn explained the agency’s position on menthol flavor in a January news release. Hahn said that the FDA was forced to strike a balance between “the urgency with which we must address the public health threat of youth use of e-cigarette products, with the potential role that e-cigarettes may play in helping adult smokers transition completely away from combustible tobacco to a potentially less risky form of nicotine delivery.”
Regarding disposables, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, told the Times that the FDA doesn’t have data showing high rates of use of disposable vapes by youths. He did say, however, that the agency is monitoring the issue and will revise the new policy if necessary.
The Ongoing Danger of Youth Vaping
In 2018, the chief of the Food and Drug Administration declared youth vaping a national epidemic. The latest National Youth Tobacco Survey in 2019 found 27.5% of high school students and 10.5% of middle school students use e-cigarettes, as the Journal of the American Medical Association reported.
Vaping ads have been blamed for targeting teens with mint and candy-like flavors. Around 70% of middle school and high school students have reported seeing e-cigarette ads, according to the CDC, but roughly two-thirds of JUUL users ages 15 to 24 didn’t realize the products always contain nicotine. A 2019 study found that teens were twice as likely to start vaping after seeing ads.
E-cigarettes, or vapes, generate an aerosol from liquid-filled pods that users breathe in. According to the CDC, the pods typically contain several dangerous or potentially harmful substances such as nicotine, volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals, and diacetyl, a chemical flavoring linked to severe lung disease.
By Nicole Knight
Nicole Knight is a freelance writer based in Southern California. A former reporter for the Orange County Register, she most recently covered issues related to women’s health and economic justice for the nonprofit site Rewire.News. Her bylines have appeared in outlets ranging from Pacific Standard to Parents.com, reflecting her varied interests. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Follow her on Twitter @nicolekshine.