While vaping among Utah’s youth is on the decline and youth smoking rates are at their lowest ever, there are threats that still pose a significant public health challenge. Despite our best efforts as a community to prevent Utah youth from vaping, teens are still vulnerable to an emerging threat — illegal disposable vape products from China sold openly at many retailers across Utah.

Experts say that although it is against the law for those under 21 to purchase legal tobacco and nicotine products, illegal disposable vapes from China are easily accessible for youth either online or offline. These illegal products are designed with youth-enticing flavors like “rainbow cotton candy” and made to look like highlighters or cartoon characters. Although the FDA has declared these products illegal, the federal government has not been able to keep them from flooding our country and our state. According to the latest government data, in an ironic twist, the same products that are illegal from coast to coast are the ones that middle and high school students use most often.

These products are manufactured in China, marketed in candy flavors and bright colors to seduce young people, and smuggled into our country, bypassing U.S. regulations and endangering our children with unchecked quality. They are marketed on TikTok and other social media platforms popular with children, and they are sold online or through unscrupulous vape shops and retailers.

Opinion: More action is needed to keep vapes away from young Utahns
Even though cigarette smoking has plummeted in the U.S., e-cigarettes are rising

As someone responsible for safeguarding schools, the ease with which illegal disposable vapes in youth-enticing flavors and packaging find their way into young hands is disturbing. The repercussions are real and immediate. Teachers and administrators in Utah and around the country are spending more and more time policing the locker rooms and hallways to confiscate vapes from students. This time and effort would be better spent on instruction and guidance in the classroom. So, the question remains: If these products are already illegal under federal law, why are these flavored disposable vapes from Chinese manufacturers still showing up in our schools?

In 2020, the FDA left open a loophole for disposable vapes, and unsurprisingly, unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers pounced. These products evade detection by Customs and Border Patrol and the sinister designs help them go undetected by parents and teachers. 

Millions of illegal disposable vapes have been confiscated, but many more are slipping across our borders, and a shocking report by The Associated Press highlights they are able to get into our communities due to gaps in federal enforcement and oversight.

Utah’s legislative response, SB133 and substitute bill SB61, is a significant step toward addressing this issue. SB133 requires the State Tax Commission to keep a list of licensed distributors and impose penalties on retailers who buy from unlicensed sources. SB61 creates a directory for electronic cigarettes, requires products to undergo FDA’s Premarket Tobacco Product Application, or PMTA, process, and only allows traditional tobacco flavors — like menthol and mint — in electronic cigarettes. These bills will help enforcement officials, retailers, and consumers readily identify and differentiate legal products from illegal ones and ultimately help make strides in protecting Utah’s youth. 

But laws like SB133 and SB61, while critical, can only do so much. Federal action to prevent these products from ever entering the country is vital. Utah parents and educators need to contact the Biden-Harris administration and the FDA to demand immediate action by providing clarity on the marketplace, encouraging increased on-the-ground enforcement efforts for retailers, and unlocking new resources to combat the massive amount of illegal disposable vapes in youth-appealing flavors available online and on the store shelves of unscrupulous vape shops.

As Utah parents, educators and law enforcement officers voice their concerns, we must see them echoed in the actions of our state and national leaders. Together, we can turn the tide against the epidemic of illegal, flavored disposable vapes and ensure the health and safety of Utah’s future generations.

The path forward requires persistence and collaboration. Utah has laid the groundwork by introducing and hopefully passing SB133 and SB61. It is also vital for federal authorities to act as the well-being of our youth demands nothing less than our collective, relentless advocacy.

Stefan Bjes is a veteran school resource officer and law enforcement professional with two decades of experience helping provide safe learning environments for young people.