Unknown to many, there is a vaping epidemic among young people here in Utah, driven by illegal, flavored, disposable e-cigarettes. With the potential that these products could even be laced with fentanyl, the danger is more threatening than ever. The federal government has been lax in its willingness to address the issue as these illicit products continue to enter our borders. The good news, however, is our local health departments are in a unique position to take action now. 

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data from the annual National Youth Tobacco Survey. The data shows that, while cigarette smoking continues to decline to the lowest levels recorded, use of disposable e-cigarettes has increased 2,617% since 2019. More troubling is that for the first time, the vape brands that teens report using most are already illegal for sale under federal law. Elf Bar, the brand cited by over 57% of children, is banned nationwide but still finding its way into backpacks and middle school bathrooms.

Recently, Braden Ainsworth, the tobacco prevention and control program manager for Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services, told the state Legislature’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee that local health departments would begin stepping up enforcement against these illegal, disposable vapes, like Esco Bars and Elf Bar, that are overwhelmingly popular among kids and teens. The anticipated action comes in response to Chinese manufacturers routinely flouting the law to get their products into children’s hands. While unethical, that certainly is what we are seeing here in Utah.

Even though cigarette smoking has plummeted in the U.S., e-cigarettes are rising

The problem traces back to 2020 when the FDA banned flavored cartridge-based reusable e-cigarettes. Shockingly, that regulation was silent on disposable vapes. Chinese manufacturers continue to exploit this dangerous loophole and flood the U.S. market with illegal, disposable e-cigarettes. They are currently being marketed and sold in youth-enticing flavors like blue cotton candy and watermelon bubble gum without filing the required product applications with the FDA.

This loophole is so big any teenager could find it — and they have. After the 2020 FDA cartridge ban went into effect, the number of unique e-cigarettes sold in the U.S. increased to over 9,000, and disposable sales soared among youth nationwide. Today, 89.4% of high school e-cigarette users use sweet and candy-flavored vapes.

Around 12% of Utah eighth graders and about one-quarter of our high school seniors have experimented with vaping, the state health department says.

Almost all of the illegal, disposable e-cigarettes teens use come from China. That country has banned the sale of these dangerous products within its own borders, so foreign manufacturers are preying on our children to keep their businesses running.

After leaving the disposable loophole open for years, the FDA is finally recognizing the public health catastrophe it created and is attempting to crack down on illegal manufacturers, distributors and sellers through fines and threatening letters. These measures are inadequate.

The Associated Press recently reported that four months after our federal government moved to block imports of Elf Bar, the top-selling Chinese disposable vape, the products are still widely available.

Utah parents, teachers and school administrators will tell you more needs to be done to keep kids safe. It was encouraging to hear Ainsworth testify on the actions the state health department is planning to take, in cooperation with local agencies, to ensure retailers fully understand that, disposable, flavored e-cigarettes are illegal and they will be held accountable if they keep selling them.

As a small business owner and two-term Draper City council member, I want to help ensure responsible retailers are not put at a disadvantage by bad actors who are breaking the law to line their pockets. Most small business owners want to do the right thing for their customers and communities. The FDA, state and local agencies have a responsibility to make sure they have the accurate information they need and that the law is being consistently and rigorously enforced!

Our state lawmakers are right to intensify the fight against illegal, disposable, flavored vapes. China has already demonstrated a total disregard for the health and safety of young Americans by targeting them with these illegal products for years. Our health and law enforcement agencies at every level must join forces, back their words with action, and get every last one of these products off shelves! 

Bill Rappleye is president of WER Enterprises and two-term Draper City council member.