SALT LAKE CITY — Any flavor of "juice" inhaled through an electronic cigarette is better than the taste of burning tobacco, according to one former heavy smoker.
"People want to get away from the taste of tobacco," said Lewie Lambros, director of the Utah Smoke Free Association and co-owner at Vapor Dreams, a popular vape shop in Bountiful. He said the industry offers thousands of flavor combinations and it is the option for a pleasurable taste that clenches smokers and helps them stop smoking more harmful cigarettes.
Those flavors, however, are now under siege by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which on Wednesday said the taste is too enticing to minors, leading to ever-increasing use and nicotine addiction rates among teens.
"It's definitely a big concern that these products are out there and that kids are getting access to them," said Brittany Karzen, marketing manager for the Utah Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. The FDA, she said, is taking steps to regulate the industry before the "epidemic" trend reverses decades of progress.
A 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, resulting from a multistate lawsuit filed against cigarette manufacturers, prohibits tobacco companies from advertising, promoting and marketing its products to minors.
And retailers, especially in Utah, shouldn't be selling products to minors anyway, Karzen said, referring to state law that requires anyone buying tobacco products to be 19. But at least 11 percent of kids in Utah report that they use e-cigarettes regularly and 20 percent have tried it, according to the health department's 2017 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey results.
'Big concerns' for parents
Karzen said research shows nicotine is bad for the developing brain.
"Whether it is chewed, smoked or vaped, it primes the brain for addiction, predisposes them to mental health challenges and can make learning more difficult," she said. "These are big concerns for parents."
She suggests that parents help educate kids, as well as themselves, about the variety of products available, to help combat the problem and "talk to kids about it early." The department recently launched thetobaccotalk.org with suggestions to help.
"Nicotine is so addictive. Once a kid is hooked, they'll find additional ways to meet that nicotine need," Karzen said, adding that the rising popularity of e-cigarettes, even among youth, could lead to a greater number of kids turning to traditional tobacco products.
E-cigarettes began surfacing around 2007, making the industry still relatively new. States are slowly adopting laws to regulate them, but the FDA hasn't taken a definitive stand until now, citing concern for a greater number of youth who are likely becoming addicted to nicotine because of the flavors — an unforeseen consequence, the agency claims.
The FDA gave the five largest e-cigarette manufacturers 60 days to produce plans to stop underage use of their products. If they fail, the agency plans to block sales with product restrictions.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, however, has said he aims to cut nicotine levels in regular cigarettes to help more people quit smoking. Smokers might then be directed to alternatives, including e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine to the user without the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes.
Karzen said the majority of Utah kids report "bumming or borrowing" e-cigarettes from friends or family, as Utah boasts a low rate of sales to minors. The young users, however, often don't know what is in them and are drawn to it because "it tastes good."
New technology also make it easier to use, she said.
Lambros, who smoked for 19 years, tried everything to quit and started his own business selling e-cigarettes and nicotine cartridges of varying nicotine content because vaping worked for him. It's been seven years since he smoked a tobacco cigarette and he said he could now go a month or more without even thinking about picking up his vaporizer.
The ability to control the nicotine levels in an e-cigarette cartridge, he said, as well as putting the equipment to your mouth, "gives the brain time to heal and get away from the addiction."
"You slowly start to wake up and wonder what you've been doing all those years," Lambros said.
FDA: knee-jerk reaction?
The FDA action, he said, is unfairly jeopardizing vape shops when flavored energy drinks and flavored alcohol remain unregulated and are potentially more harmful than e-cigarettes.
He's afraid that making the most desirable products, flavored e-juice, unavailable would lead people to make their own or buy from questionable salespeople who are not taking the necessary precautions when mixing their own toxic nicotine products.
A better solution, Lambros said, is creating stricter penalties for kids caught using e-cigarettes. Underage alcohol drinkers used to lose their driving privileges for years, he said, adding that a small monetary fine and community service "is nothing for most people."
"We need to increase the penalty for them so they know it is serious," he said. "Youth need to be held accountable for their actions. They need to see that using something they're not old enough to use has punishments to it."
Lambros and other vape shop owners told KSL they require age identification for every customer served. They frown on illegal identification and report its use — not only to keep themselves safe from regulation and fines, but also to keep teens from getting into trouble.
The agency's recent move, he said, is a "knee-jerk reaction" and doesn't consider the large numbers of people e-cigarettes are helping.
He estimates having helped thousands of customers cut back on their nicotine consumption, getting a handle on addiction. And, the percentage of people who choose tobacco-flavored e-juice, he said, is very low.
The most popular products at Salt Lake City's House of Hookahs are the fruit flavors, specifically combinations of tropical or common fruits like cherry and apple. A lot of people prefer menthol or mint flavors, too. But a lot of the flavors mimic popular cereals and candy that are marketed to children.
If the FDA has its way and ends up banning flavored cartridges, it would not only cripple the vaping business nationwide, Lambros says it would drive a lot of former smokers back to the more harmful habit they worked hard to get away from.
"We want to protect the kids, I get that," he said. "The part I don't hear anybody say is that adults enjoy the taste of flavors, too. These products are designed for adult use and we don't want kids using them."