SALT LAKE CITY — For the past few weeks, health concerns around vaping have made headlines as hundreds of people across the country have been hospitalized for a mysterious vaping illness. Some have called for bans on flavored e-cigarette products as the number of middle and high school kids who vape continues to rise.
The KSL Investigators are adding one more concern to the list: a loophole that is allowing vape products to be sold near parks, schools and residential areas despite Utah zoning laws designed to keep the products out of the hands of kids.
One teen’s story
To understand why the law is in place, 19-year-old Katie Bertram, the daughter of KSL Newsradio’s Debbie Dujanovic, has been sharing her story of addiction with parents, lawmakers and health officials around Utah.
She’s a straight “A” student, an awesome athlete, and for nearly a year, Katie was addicted to vaping.
She said she got hooked quickly.
“It was a quick addiction. The cost didn’t matter, nothing mattered, I needed it on me 24/7,” she said.
Katie and her addiction became a statistic.
In Utah, 18.9% of teens said they have tried vaping according to the 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey. Among high school seniors, that number jumped to 31.5%.
If you’re under 19, it is illegal and the Centers for Disease Control said it’s not safe.
Katie said teens are surrounded by it.
“You’re just around it all the time,” she said. “It’s kind of marketed to everybody who walks in there.”
Now, when Katie said it’s marketed to everyone who walks in “there,” she’s talking about mixed retail stores.
That’s a store selling food, drinks, clothing and other merchandise — and if they so choose, mixed retail stores can sell vape products.
But here’s the catch: If more than 35% of their sales are tobacco products, they have to be licensed as a “specialty” shop.
Location, location, location
If you want to know why that’s a big deal, it’s all about location in relation to the kids.
Specialty vape or tobacco shops have zoning requirements, keeping them at least 600 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, churches, parks and playgrounds in Utah.
Kids under 19 can’t even walk into a specialty shop.
But mixed retail stores are exempt from that law, meaning they can pop up just about anywhere.
“We don’t want kids walking by this and seeing this every day when they’re walking home from school or they’re walking to and from church on Sundays,” said Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake County.
Dailey-Provost said the zoning laws for specialty shops create a physical and psychological barrier between children and tobacco products.
She believes dozens of specialty tobacco and vaping businesses are falsely claiming to be mixed stores and setting up shop wherever they want.
“These stores are flying under the radar,” Dailey-Provost said. “They’re skirting around some important zoning laws that we’ve determined are critical.”
Measuring the distance
To see if some of these stores were skirting the law, the KSL Investigators took undercover cameras into nine different mixed retail shops in Salt Lake County.
In each store, we purchased a bottle of vape juice and noticed something interesting on the receipts.
In one shop we bought a Coke Classic and a six-ounce bottle of Strawberry Melon Twist vape juice.
The Coke Classic is clearly listed on the receipt. But the vape juice is simply noted as “custom item.”
And that appeared to be the norm on just about every one of our receipts at the shops we visited.
Instead of showing we purchased a specific brand of vape juice, it rings up as “gift item,” “custom item,” “miscellaneous,” or “glass.” One time it was even blank, showing nothing at all.
When the KSL Investigators asked for an itemized receipt, the employee offered to handwrite one, because, as she said, “For some reason it doesn’t come out [that way].”
While each store gave a different reason for the descriptions on the receipts, every receipt was vaguely the same.
An employee at a shop in West Jordan said, “(that’s) just the way our system is recognizing some different prices.”
Seldom did we get an answer that made sense.
One case in point was a shop in Midvale, where the receipt showed a charge for a $14 rubber band we never agreed to purchase.
“So the band is $14 and the juice is only $6?” Mike Headrick asked.
“Not in reality,” the clerk said. “It’s just the way our system needs to split it up so we know how many of the vape bands we’re getting rid of, so that we can order the right amount next time.”
Again, the KSL Investigators never asked for that vape band she’s talking about.
But on the receipt, it’s listed as a “branded accessory” for $14, the Aqua Surge vape juice costing us only $6.
That’s well below market value.
It seems weird, right?
Hey, lady at the counter, do you think that’s weird?
“It’s weird,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the way our system has to do it, that’s the way they did it.”
While we may never understand it, there may be a reason for that.
“I think the owners wanted to do it that way because it looks better,” the clerk told us. “That’s just what they told me to explain, is like, when you add those two together, that’s what the juice comes to.”
“So, the less you know the better?” Headrick asked.
“Yeah, basically,” answered the clerk.
What’s on a receipt?
The KSL Investigators took the receipts to Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
“It’s that group of stores that we have this challenge with,” he said.
Edwards is ultimately in charge of making sure these stores are in compliance but he said those vague receipts are tough to track, making it nearly impossible to know if they’re following the law.
“Would you call it a loophole?” Headrick asked.
“I would call it a loophole,” Edwards said.
The KSL Investigators broke out a measuring wheel and discovered that loophole could be allowing one shop to skirt zoning restrictions and operate just feet away from an apartment building and a nearby school.
A loophole that by our measurements, allows another store to sell near two churches, a school and a neighborhood of houses.
A loophole that might make it okay for another vape shop to operate near another church and group of homes, north, south, east and west of the business.
And unless that loophole is tightened up, the fear is more and more kids and teens will be exposed, become addicted and eventually suffer the health effects of vaping.
Officials with the Salt Lake County Health Department said there are roughly 600 tobacco retailers in the county. They believe about 5-to-6%, or 30 shops, may be skirting the law.
They also said they are working with lawmakers to close the loophole in the next legislative session and make receipts more specific.
And if “vape” or “vapor” is in the name of the business, they want it to follow the laws of a specialty vape shop.