SALT LAKE CITY — Fewer than 5 percent of Utah teens were using tobacco products prior to the advent of electronic cigarettes, which one lawmaker said was proof that the state was "winning the war on tobacco."
E-cigarettes, however, have enticed young minds at "alarming" rates, said Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. She said at least 11 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders now report getting a daily nicotine fix via vaping and at least 30 percent have tried it, according to Utah Department of Health data.
"It is safe to say that nicotine is the gateway drug for our state," she said. "Nicotine primes the brain for addiction."
Dailey-Provost proposes, with HB274, that manufacturers of electronic cigarette cartridges know exactly what they're doing, particularly by creating and marketing popular fruit- and candy-flavored nicotine cartridges.
"The argument can be made that adults like sweet flavors as well … but Utah has a long history of making tightly controlled products kind of inconvenient to adults in order to protect access to children," the lawmaker said.
Her bill aims to do just that — put flavors like "Gummy Bear, Captain Crunch and Strawberry Daquiri" out of reach at convenience stores and other mixed-retail outlets across the state. Instead, such products, which Dailey-Provost said are aiming to get kids hooked, would only be available at specialty shops where proper licensing is obtained and practices are regulated.
And while tobacco products are not legal to be sold to people under age 19 throughout Utah, limiting the points of sale, Dailey-Provost said, would lessen the amount of potentially harmful products making its way into young hands.
"It's like giving candy to a baby," said Dr. Sarah Woolsey, a Salt Lake family physician. "Unregulated access to e-cigarettes puts Utah youth at risk of experimentation of high-risk substances."
Woolsey said the state needs to ensure that kids know e-cigarettes aren't safe, despite tricky marketing.
Industry representatives told members of the Utah House Business and Labor Committee on Thursday that removing the products from one point of sale doesn't eliminate the problem, as existing law prevents youth from having access to nicotine-containing products at all, said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association.
"We all like things that taste good, these are not specifically sold for the youth," he said. "If any youth is getting access to this, it's a problem."
DeAnn Kettenring, health commissioner with the Utah PTA, said kids are typically getting e-cigarette products from older teens and young adults who can purchase it legally. Getting it from a convenience store, she said, is much easier than finding an authorized specialty shop, which by Utah law, are more restricted in their location placement.
Park City Vapor Co. owner Beau Maxon said he'd rather see better enforcement of existing laws than have new restrictions placed on his mixed-retail shop.
"The real issue needs to be actually putting in severe penalties on minors themselves," he said. "If somebody of age is legally coming into my shop and distributing to a minor, that's their problem. It's not mine."
Utah Department of Health Director Dr. Joseph Miner said flavors definitely entice more people to try e-cigarettes, as 80 percent of teens recently surveyed said they started smoking by using flavored nicotine products.
The potential addiction resulting from electronic cigarettes, he said, is "a serious issue."4 comments on this story
"Quitting nicotine is a very difficult thing to do," Dailey-Provost said, adding that studies show that up to 10 attempts is often necessary for successful cessation.
"I'm perfectly happy with adults making their own decisions and using substances that abuse their bodies, but, this is to protect kids," she said. Dailey-Provost said she would prefer banning the flavored products altogether, but since that's a bill that wouldn't pass, she's fighting for what can.
The committee approved HB274 on Thursday and sent it to the House for further discussion and voting.