Laws Against Vaping Fail to Combat Teen Nicotine Addiction

With reports of vape-related deaths and illnesses becoming more numerous, government regulations on vape products have increased in recent months. On Sept. 1, many smoke shops across Arkansas closed their doors to vape enthusiasts under the age of 21, and legislation proposed last month would further restrict the sale and regulation of vapes and vape accessories in Arkansas. Despite action being taken to combat vaping as the gateway to a youth smoking epidemic, these legislations have some fundamental, contradictory flaws.

As the death toll rises one by one, this law seems like a publicity stunt for policymakers to prove to the public that they are in tune with the national vape scare, rather than a practical solution to the problem of addiction in young people. If policymakers really had the youth in mind, legislation like the flavor ban would apply to all addictive, potentially hazardous consumables – not just vape products. Conversely, more would be done, and a bigger statement would be made, if the U.S. followed in the footsteps of dozens of other nations and banned vaping unconditionally.

In December, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported a drastic increase in nicotine vaping among middle and high schoolers. As many as 37% of high schoolers admitted to vaping at some point in 2018 – contrasted with just 27% the previous year. These are individuals who were already too young to purchase nicotine products under the old law, which required buyers to be only 18 years of age. School-aged teens are already hooked on nicotine. If their plan was to acquire vapes through a friend or family member until they turned 18, all they have to do now is adapt their plan and tack on another couple of years.

According to the same survey, vapers also made up a staggering 11% of middle schoolers surveyed – if 12- and 13-year-olds were having an easy time getting adults to buy them nicotine, a 20-year-old college student would probably laugh at the prospect of an age limit restricting his ability to smoke.

Despite an exception to the new law that gives a pass to those who are or will be at least 19 years old by the end of the year, many shops including Smooth Vapes in Bentonville, for example, advertise a restriction on the sale of nicotine products to anyone under 21.

There is one glaring contradiction that exists when it comes to the frantic aim to control vape products: nothing new is being done to regulate flavored cigarette and tobacco sales. A study by Public Health England maintains that vaping is 95% safer than tobacco use, as it is void of most of the carcinogens and tar that are associated with cigarettes and cigars. Yet vape bans are filling local, state and national headlines while tobacco regulation remains constant. And the problem is not only national; 25 countries across the world have implemented unconditional bans on the buying and selling of vapes, with 13 more classified as “heavily restricted.” These nations span every continent and include huge global population centers like Brazil and most of Southeast Asia.

Tobacco, on the other hand, is banned in only one country – the tiny central Asian kingdom of Bhutan, with a population marginally greater than that of Little Rock. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control asserts the importance of restricting or banning vape products – a treaty signed by more than 180 countries. Meanwhile, you can still get slapped with a $20,000 fine and a year in jail for vaping in Singapore, a place where 18-and-ups can freely purchase and use cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and more.

Another contradiction that exists with vape regulations in the U.S. deals with the proposed federal ban on “fun” flavored nicotines, such as cotton candy or birthday cake, limiting juice pods to flavors of tobacco and menthol that are better suited for those using vapes for their intended purpose: as a way to quit conventional smoking.

There is still no regulation on flavored cigarettes, cigarillos and sweet or fruity liquors. If the goal is dissuading youths from using addictive substances, these policies should be applied across the board. Secondly, as Juul is one of the only companies to accept the ban so far, other companies like SeaPods and Ziip Pods have swooped onto the scene with new lines of fruity, Juul-compatible vape juice pods, which are cheaper and less trustworthy than Juul brand pods – they’ve gained popularity in the wake of the ban to profit off of Juul’s discontinued flavors. Juul officials advise against the use of third-party vape juice with their e-cigarettes.

Worse yet are the people who will make their own e-liquids when they can no longer buy them, said Liam Niederbaumer, who has managed five vape shops around Northwest Arkansas including a popular chain in Fayetteville.

“I’d rather make my customer a flavored juice here in a regulated lab than have her use a recipe with vegetable oil, for example,” Niederbaumer said. “We shouldn’t be vaping oils, but not everyone knows that.”

Labs in which e-liquids are made are heavily regulated and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up and maintain, Niederbaumer said. However, online recipes for vape juice can advise the use of vegetable oil.

“We use propylene glycol, which is used in inhalers, and vegetable glycerin,” Niederbaumer said. “But it’s just a scare I’d have someone use [vegetable oil] instead [of vegetable glycerin] because they don’t know the dangers of it. Oils shouldn’t be heated into our lungs, it’s terrible. That’s why people are dying.”

Even if across-the-board regulations can be implemented that don’t isolate vapes as the sole leisure substance that threatens teenagers and young adults, legislation like the 21-plus law will only go so far. The 37% of high schoolers who were already getting vape products underage will continue to find a way to smoke – and maybe next year, unless we come up with some new ideas, the number will reach 47%.

“I don’t like to encourage anyone to start vaping if they aren’t already addicted to nicotine products,” Niederbaumer said. “But I never discourage vaping for those who are.”

Elias Weiss is the opinion editor for the Arkansas Traveler, where he worked as a reporter and columnist from 2018-2019. Elias graduated with an AA degree in journalism from Central Piedmont Community College in 2018.

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