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Following California’s Lead, Feds Crack Down On Flavored Tobacco For Kids

Sammy Caiola / Capital Public Radio

Yummy gum, lemon twist, butterscotch and cinnamon roll are just a few of the flavors on the shelf at Twisted Smoke Shop in East Sacramento.

Sammy Caiola / Capital Public Radio

California health leaders have been aggressive about blocking teens’ access to flavored tobacco, and now the federal government is stepping up in the fight.

Vape juice— usually a combination of vegetable glycerin and nicotine smoked through e-cigarettes— entered the market in the mid-2000s and is now sold in a wide range of candy-like flavors. It’s been especially popular among teens, who can access it online as well as in stores.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that it’s cracking down on retailers who provide these substances to minors, and warned that it might restrict access to e-cigarettes “to reduce the youth epidemic.”

We won’t allow the current trends in youth access and use to continue, even if it means putting limits in place that reduce adult uptake of these products,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

After an undercover investigation this summer, the agency issued roughly 1,300 warning letters and fines to businesses involved in youth sales. They also asked five manufacturers to submit a proposal within 60 days showing how they plan to keep their product out of the hands of teenagers.

Federally, it’s illegal to sell any tobacco product to people under age 18. In California the laws are even stricter. In 2016, the state bumped the legal smoking age to 21, and changed the definition of “tobacco products” to include e-cigarettes.

But that doesn’t mean kids aren’t getting their hands on it. A fact sheet from the California Department of Public Health showed 80 percent of young people who have ever used tobacco started with a flavored product, and 7 of 10 teens who use tobacco reported using a flavored product in the past month.

Susan Watson, director of the nonprofit California Adolescent Health Collaborative, said the trend marks a second wave in the fight against smoking.

“California’s been at the forefront of a lot of the policies related to tobacco,” she said.

She added that colored and flavored products that “don’t necessarily look like a traditional cigarette” have “re-emerged and caught the eye of young people.”

Some California cities and counties have banned the sale of flavored tobacco altogether, facing push back from manufacturers and from adults who see smoking vaporizing pens, or vaping, as a safe way to wean off cigarettes.

The state health department recently undertook a massive campaign to warn the public about the dangers of e-cigarettes for youth. They want parents to look out for signs, such as if a child seem especially thirsty, or if their bedrooms smell artificially sweet. Some flavored tobacco products cause nosebleeds.

There hasn’t been a lot of research on the health impacts of vaping, but studies show that nicotine can negatively impact a teen’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for attention.

Juul, a San Francisco-based company that makes vape pens that look a lot like flash drives, said in a statement this week that it wants to reduce teen use of the product and will cooperate with the FDA’s efforts.

Watson said she’s glad the FDA is coming down on manufacturers, but there will also need to be a change in marketing.

“Where the FDA is going is saying there’s multiple places where the responsibilities need to lie,” she said. “From a business perspective, people are trying to sell and make money, and on some level will take anybody’s money, youth or otherwise.”

This story has been updated to more clearly define flavored tobacco, a liquid substance often used in cigarettes, which is also known as vape juice or e-liquid.

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