Utah lawmakers are advancing a bill to ban the sale of most flavored electronic cigarettes in an effort to reduce the number of teens who vape.

But some vape shop owners worry the policy could harm their businesses and say it would be a boon to Big Tobacco.

The bill is being run by Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, a physician who is also the medical director of Utah Naloxone, an organization focused on decreasing the number of opioid overdoses. She described SB61 as an attempt to cut down on the number of teenagers who use nicotine products by prohibiting sales of all flavored vape cartridges other than mint, menthol and tobacco.

Plumb told the House Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday that while working in the emergency department, she has seen countless teenagers who suffer nicotine withdrawal symptoms while being treated for mental health or other crises.

"They start to ask about plugging in their devices, their vape devices," she said. "We sometimes even have to put nicotine patches on kids because they're going through withdrawals."

Although e-cigarettes are often seen as a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, research from Intermountain Health found vaping can cause long-term issues such as respiratory problems, cognitive impairment and mental health issues.

Plumb presented state survey data collected in 2023 showing that sweet flavors or flavors that mimic alcohol flavors make up 69% of all flavors vaped by students in grades 8, 10 and 12, while mint, menthol and tobacco were among the least popular for teenagers.

Flavored cigarettes were banned at the federal level in 2009, although menthol cigarettes remain legal despite research showing menthol "enhances the effects of nicotine on the brain and can make tobacco products even more addictive," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Food and Drug Administration announced a policy to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes last October, but the White House delayed the ban in December, according to NPR.

The exterior of Vape Avenue & Smoke Shop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. A new bill would ban most flavored vapes in Utah.
The exterior of Vape Avenue & Smoke Shop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. A new bill would ban most flavored vapes in Utah. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

While many in the Legislature see the bill as a way to limit vape products that tend to appeal to teens — SB61 passed the Senate 20-3 last week and was approved by the House committee 9-1 on Tuesday — opponents say it unfairly limits adults' access to flavored vape products and could harm the business owners who sell them.

Although flavored e-cigarette cartridges can only be sold in specialty tobacco stores that are limited to those over the age of 21, Plumb said younger teenagers often have no problem purchasing flavored vapes.

Several dozen adults loudly protested against the bill in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday ahead of its committee hearing, chanting, "We vape, we vote," and "Adults want flavors." The protesters — many of whom own or work in vape shops in the Salt Lake area — packed a crowded committee room in the basement of the House of Representatives building, which quickly filled with the scent of bubblegum and fruit-flavored vapor.

Beau Maxun, with the Utah Vapor Business Association, said the bill would only help Big Tobacco, because he said many vape shops aim to help get smokers off of traditional cigarettes.

"I will sit here in front of you right now and tell you that if this committee had the courage to ban all tobacco products, I would walk away from every single one of my businesses," he said. "But the reality is that's not what this committee is here to do."

Supporters of the bill argued, however, that the prevalence of teen e-cigarette use runs counter to the idea of getting off nicotine products, because many teens who vape do so without ever smoking traditional cigarettes.

Plumb said she's not trying to harm businesses, but noted that many people develop nicotine addictions when they're young, and often go on to regret it later in life. She acknowledged that it "sounds very nannyish," "very shaking of the finger," but added that "there is likely going to be some business model adjustments so that we can get these flavors out of the hands of our kiddos."

SB61 passed the House Health and Human Services Committee with amendments, so if it is approved by the full House it will go back to the Senate for final approval.