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Opinion: It’s time for Colorado to respond to the teen vaping epidemic

“Gummy bear,” “cotton candy” and “banana split” aren’t just candy flavors you might find in your child’s Halloween basket; they are flavors that tobacco executives are using right now to hook kids like yours on nicotine vaping.

Despite the news you may have recently read about the Trump administration’s new restrictions on nicotine vaping products, flavors like these will still be available to children in Colorado.

This reality is especially troubling for our state, as 27.5% of Colorado teens are using these products, which is the highest youth usage rate in the United States.

Jake Williams

It’s time for the Colorado General Assembly and the governor to stand up for our children by passing policy that keeps these flavored products off the market in Colorado.

In early January, the Food and Drug Administration announced temporary limitations on the sale of some flavored e-cigarette pods.

While it was a step in the right direction, the policy contains massive loopholes. First, companies are able to re-apply to the FDA to put these products back on the market.

Second, the policy only applies to “pods” (disposable liquid packets), meaning these flavors will still be available in so-called “open tank” systems (refillable devices).

Third, the new rules allowed the continued sale of menthol flavoring in both pod and open tank systems, even though, according to the FDA, about two-thirds of high school kids using e-cigarettes are vaping mint or menthol flavors. Finally, none of these flavor restrictions apply to leaf tobacco products, like cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

These regulations were a significant step down from the ones initially announced last year by the Trump Administration, when they said that they would pursue wider restrictions that included a complete ban on all non-tobacco flavors.

As widely reported, after the initial announcement last year, a massive tobacco industry lobbying effort ensued. Even though a September 2019 Morning Consult poll showed that 77% of Trump voters supported a complete ban on flavored vaping products, the industry’s onslaught was successful, as indicated by the watered-down policy that was recently announced. 

It’s easy to see how, from the industry’s perspective, this was all money well spent. Finding new young people to addict to their products means new, long-term customers.

Offering flavored products is key to that interest — 79% of teens 12 to 17 in a recent FDA study said they used a tobacco product because “it comes in flavors I like.”

The industry’s strategy has not just caught the attention of public health advocates like me, but law enforcement officials as well. Juul, the titan of the nicotine vaping industry, is currently under investigation by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser for deceptive marketing practices to appeal to children, and a lawsuit has been filed by North Carolina’s attorney general against them for practices including “aggressively targeting children” in their marketing.

Coloradans do not want our state to be ground zero in the tobacco industry’s campaign to hook a new generation on nicotine.

In a recent poll of likely 2020 voters in Colorado, commissioned by Healthier Colorado, 67% said that they supported banning the sale of these flavored products.

Furthermore, 76% said they supported requiring vendors to have a license to sell tobacco and nicotine products. Unlike alcohol and marijuana, our state does not require a license to sell products like cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes, which impedes our ability to enforce the law and keep these products out of the hands of kids.

Last year, eight states and hundreds of localities, including five in Colorado, issued some version of a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products.

The Colorado General Assembly will have the opportunity in this year’s state legislative session to close the loopholes in the Trump administration’s policy on flavored products and institute a commonsense licensing system for vendors.

The tobacco industry will no doubt spend lavishly once again, this time to lobby our state legislators, to oppose these proposals. State lawmakers will be faced with a critical choice.

I urge them to side with Colorado’s kids and a bipartisan majority of Colorado voters over the bottom line of an industry that profits from addiction. 

Jake Williams is the Executive Director of Healthier Colorado, Healthier Colorado is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the voices of Coloradans in the public policy process to improve the health of our state’s residents.