Skip to contents
Health

Cigarettes all over again? Colorado has the highest youth vaping rate in the country.

Some Colorado towns got fed up waiting for the state to crack down on youth sales. They're not waiting for history to repeat itself.

Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York on Dec. 20, 2018. After a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018, Juul discontinued flavors that were seen as marketed to teens. (Seth Wenig, The Associated Press)
  • Credibility:

Jim Lynch mastered the fake yawn, stretching out his arm and bringing it to his mouth during class, then pausing to pull a drag from the Juul tucked up the sleeve of his sweatshirt. The high school junior held the vapor in his mouth for 10 seconds, waiting for it to evaporate before he took another breath.

It’s called “ghosting,” and the result is no vapor puff. No scent of mint or mango, his go-to Juul flavors.  

All was cool until the day Lynch, a student at Wheat Ridge High School, got caught by his choir teacher, who returned to the room sooner than expected and in time to see Lynch exhale a cloud. The otherwise well-behaved kid got an afternoon of detention.

Colorado has the highest rate of vaping teenagers in the nation at 27 percent, double the national average, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Local communities — particularly in mountain and rural towns, where rates are the worst — are desperate to take matters into their own hands.

Make more journalism like this possible with a Colorado Sun membership, starting at just $5 a month.

Legislation nearly to the governor’s desk could give them far broader powers, including the authority to raise the legal age for sale of nicotine products to 21 and require stores to purchase licenses in order to sell cigarettes or vape products.

“If an adult wants to smoke, that is their business,” said Rick Ritter, executive director of the Otero County Health Department in Southern Colorado. “But it is illegal for kids to smoke. They don’t make the smartest decisions. They think what they do now will not affect them later in life. My message is, it will.”

After Lynch got caught by his teacher, the 17-year-old knew it was time to kick the habit he’d started in eighth grade, when a friend offered him a smoke as they walked home from school. He was buying Juul pods online for about $10 each, going through one pod about every three days.

“My thoughts were, ‘When is the next time I can step outside and smoke or go to the bathroom to Juul,’ ” said Lynch, who quit two months ago. “I stopped focusing on what I wanted to do after school.”

Each pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. But when Lynch’s dad found out he was vaping, the teen told him it was just flavored smoke with no nicotine — and his dad believed him. Lynch told his father he only did it to look cool, and that part was no lie.

“It’s 100 percent one of the things to do to be cool and fit in,” he said.

A store selling vaping products in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Cities taking regulation into their own hands

In Rocky Ford, one of 12 Colorado towns regulating sales of vape products, teens are sent into convenience stores wearing hidden cameras. They’re trained not to lie, to simply ask to buy a Juul pod, or a vape pen, or e-juice for electronic cigarettes.

A police officer in plain clothes casually shops inside the store. Another officer waits outside. About half the time, based on the last undercover sting using “minor operatives” a few months back, the store sells tobacco to kids who are under 18.

Police in Rocky Ford and growing number of Colorado towns were fed up waiting on overburdened federal agents and state regulators to crack down on retailers selling e-cigarettes to kids. So they passed their own ordinances, called non-cigarette retail licensing programs, that require stores to purchase tobacco licenses from the town and give local officers the authority to make sure they are complying with city law.

Under current state law, towns aren’t allowed to license cigarette sales unless they want to forfeit their share of the state sales tax on cigarettes. It’s a throwback to the 1970s, when Big Tobacco flexed its lobbying power at the state Capitol.

Legislation awaiting final passage by the House before it heads to Gov. Jared Polis would remove that prohibition on cigarette licensure, and it would give not just municipalities but counties and unincorporated areas the authority to regulate cigarette and vaping sales.

Rocky Ford passed its ordinance in 2015, and like several other towns, left cigarettes out of its law so it would still get a 27 percent rate of return on the cigarettes sold in its boundaries. But a license is required in Rocky Ford to sell vape supplies, snuff, chewing tobacco, and cigars, plus toothpicks, mints, lotions and hand sanitizer containing nicotine. Stores must keep the items behind the counter and ask for proof that the customer is at least 18.

Before the local ordinance was passed, retailers in Rocky Ford were getting checked about once every five to six years by the Colorado Department of Revenue, which typically issued a warning.

“They would write a warning and they would say, basically, don’t do it again,” police Chief Angelo Griego said. “They weren’t fined or penalized. Then it would be another five or six years later before they’d come down again. This ordinance gave us a little bit more teeth.”

Now, Rocky Ford police run sting operations with minor operatives on every store twice per year.

Browsing a store in Rocky Ford, the police chief noticed an e-cigarette device preloaded with vape juice, which is flavored liquid containing nicotine that is heated to vapor. The package said it contained no nicotine. And when the chief told the store the paraphernalia needed to go behind the counter, workers said it didn’t because it had no nicotine.

Griego bought it, and because he had a hunch, sent it to a lab for testing.

Read more health stories from The Colorado Sun

“Guess what it came back saying?” he said. “Nicotine.”

Nearly all — 99 percent — of vaping products tested contained nicotine, even when they were labeled nicotine-free, said Alison Reidmohr, tobacco communication specialist with the state health department.

For the police chief, it’s easy to see history repeating itself, just like when the tobacco industry insisted smoking wasn’t a health risk. Only this time the myth is that e-cigarettes are healthy. And now the flavors come in cotton candy, Harry Potter, rainbow fruity cereal, apple pie and bubble gum.

“Big tobacco companies want to survive,” Griego said. “Their old customers are dying.”

Sales of Juul jumped about 800 percent from 2017 to 2018. In December, Altria Group — the maker of Marlboro cigarettes — paid $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake in Juul labs.

Current laws are reminders of Big Tobacco’s former power

Seven other Colorado municipalities besides Rocky Ford have non-cigarette tobacco retail licensing ordinances: Steamboat Springs, La Junta, Fountain, Manitou Springs, Golden, Pueblo, and as of last month, Lakewood.

Four others forfeited their share of state sales taxes on cigarettes and went ahead and regulated those too: Edgewater, Aspen, Basalt and Avon.

When Steamboat passed its ordinance in 2011, 31 percent of Steamboat Springs High School students reported using smokeless tobacco products within the last 30 days, said Jacob Perry, prevention strategies manager for Northwest Colorado Health.

Years later, after the Juul craze, Routt County now has one of the highest vaping rates among high school students in the nation at 32 percent, according to the latest Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. More distressing, 32.5 percent of high school students said they don’t think vaping is harmful.

Steamboat Springs Resort in late September 2018. Routt County now has one of the highest vaping rates among high school students in the nation at 32 percent, according to the latest Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Citizens for a Healthier Lakewood collected signatures and spoke at city council meetings for two years before the city passed its ordinance last month. Now Lakewood businesses that sell vaping products will have to buy a license, and Lakewood police can begin regular sting operations using minors.

Diana Maier, who pushed for the change, is hopeful the state legislation will pass that would allow Lakewood and other local governments to raise the legal tobacco age to 21. Most people, she said, likely do not realize retailers can sell tobacco and vape products without a license. She also is rooting for state legislation that would expand the Clean Indoor Act to include vaping.

Lakewood retailers caught selling to a minor won’t automatically lose their license to sell tobacco products and can go before a hearing officer in court.

“It’s a crisis,” Lakewood City Councilwoman Dana Gutwein said of youth vaping. “Right now the consequence is a warning letter from the state. It hasn’t been enough of a consequence to create change.”

Gutwein said she was eager for Lakewood to pass the ordinance, and for Colorado to strengthen its laws regarding vaping, before massive lobbying efforts from e-cigarette companies hit Colorado.

“When I was a kid, we had smoking sections and non-smoking sections and people said second-hand smoke was not a real thing,” said Gutwein, 34. “Now, people are saying vaping isn’t dangerous. It’s been fascinating but very alarming to think about.”

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. (Handout)

Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat who is sponsoring the state legislation, is reaching back in time to change policy set in place before he was born, policy that stripped local communities of their ability to cut down on cigarette use.

“My understanding is this was absolutely a power play by tobacco companies in the 1970s trying to protect their interests,” he said.

But now the target of the legislation isn’t youth cigarette smoking, which is at an all-time low of 7 percent in Colorado, but vaping among Colorado youth. When towns don’t have the ability to license local retailers, they don’t have the ability to crack down on sales to minors, Kennedy said.

The legislation would make it possible for towns such as Edwards in Eagle County to regulate sales, not just so-called “home-rule” cities that collect city sales taxes and govern themselves.

According to youth surveys, 44 percent of teens who vape buy the products online or from a store. The rest get them from friends or family members who are at least 18.

Ted Kwong, a spokesman for Juul Labs, said the company supports raising the legal buying age for nicotine products to 21. Last year, Juul strengthened the age verification on its website and eliminated its Facebook and Instagram accounts. “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” Kwong said.

“Popcorn lung” and other known effects of vaping

Dr. Robin Deterding, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, compared the youth vaping epidemic to a “hurricane come upon us.”

“I have never seen anything like it in the time I’ve practiced,” she said. “It’s unprecedented. These flavors and these clouds of smoke! They think they’re fun.”

The problem, she said, is that vaping has become “normalized” among teens, many of whom believe it isn’t dangerous. The research regarding vaping, though, is far behind its popularity.

She ticks off the health effects already known. E-cigarette flavors contain chemicals considered safe for digestion but not inhalation. Diacetyl, for one, is connected to “popcorn lung,” which is lung scarring detected in workers at a popcorn factory exposed to the chemical that makes popcorn taste buttery.

E-juice also contains unregulated heavy metals.

And then there’s the fact that nicotine, in super high levels, can cause seizures. Beyond that, it’s addicting, Deterding said.

Children’s Hospital is changing its electronic medical record forms to ask kids and their parents about vaping, something Deterding hopes all pediatricians will adopt.

“We are in a war with this and we are behind right now,” she said.

Reidmohr, with the state health department, describes three waves of the e-cigarette craze, beginning in 2010 when gas stations began selling disposable electronic cigarettes meant to mimic traditional cigarettes. They weren’t popular among teens.

The second wave included vape pens with a clear tank where the user could pour liquid, or vape juice, which came in a multitude of bottled flavors. This wave also included box mods — boxes with battery packs and interchangeable tanks to hold flavored juice.

And the third wave, the present, is all about Juul. The brand, by far the most popular among kids, uses nicotine salts, which are smoother and less likely to dry out the throat. It also goes to the bloodstream faster, bringing on a quick nicotine high, Reidmohr said.

Plus, a Juul device looks like a USB flash drive, is easy to hide in plain sight, or up a sweatshirt sleeve.

When Lynch quit Juuling this school year, he felt achy and irritable for three days. He missed the feeling of “being tipsy but not actually drunk.” But that passed, and the teen has since picked up “healthier habits,” he said. “I’m writing more, doing more stuff outside. I write poetry and I also draw a little bit. And I’m in the gym three days a week.”

Rising Sun

More from The Colorado Sun