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Vaping’s Wild West

Is the Marlboro Man going after unicorn pancakes and juice boxes?

Manufacturers and sellers of flavored nicotine liquid products got a warning earlier this month from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change packaging that mimics food products like candy, cookies, and juice boxes.

The nicotine liquids (e-juice or vape liquid) are used in electronic devices that heat up to generate a vapor that one inhales. Once sold as a way to kick the cigarette habit, it’s now attracting kids that have never smoked a cigarette.

Representatives from Social Advocates for Youth San Diego are visiting community groups to garner support in creating a local ordinance. They take issue with smoke shops and hookah lounges being near schools. They would like them at least 1000 feet away.

According to the city, vape shops and hookah lounges are categorized as tobacco retailers that are often not prohibited when it comes to proximity to schools. “Almost all retailers sell vape products. Additionally, some vape shops sell cigarettes, cigars and shisha [hookah]. There are more than 1,100 tobacco retailers with less than 50 businesses that only sell vape products.”

Jesse from Social Advocates for Youth showed me some vaping devices popular with kids. One looks like a USB flash drive that can be charged in any computer.

Jesse said the jury is still out as to whether vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes since it has some of the same carcinogens.

We’ve all heard the warning that cigarettes can kill you. Jesse said it was reported that an exploding vape pen did kill a Florida man this month. The possible culprit may be the small lithium-ion battery that vape pens use. Remember the Samsung battery debacle of 2016 when devices caught on fire? Small lithium-ion batteries got the blame for that too.

Jesse said parents are concerned about a smoke shop that opened in 2017 across from Hoover High School (City Heights). A smoke shop (El Guapo Smoke Shop) that the city categorizes as a grocery store.

Jason Babineau, the principal of Hoover High, said beyond having to confiscate a few e-cigarette devices, there hasn’t been any vaping issues on his campus.

I asked his view on possible legislation to keep smoke shops further away from schools. “Ultimately, we can’t rely solely on legislation to get positive results for our kids. We need to provide our students with the necessary drug and tobacco education as they progress in the school system.

“We need to educate our students that are being directly targeted by the marketing of this device. We had Joe Camel marketing children, this is the next generation of that.”

Joe Camel was the successful cartoon mascot for Camel Cigarettes (introduced in the 1980s) that was accused of marketing to children. The camel went toe-up in 1997.

Nicotine isn’t the only thing kids are vaping said Jackie, a school nurse at another local campus. “Kids are vaping marijuana in classrooms. It doesn’t smell because it’s burning so hot. It’s a vapor, so unless you are in a climate-controlled room where the vapor will liquefy, kids can be smoking pot right in front of you and you won’t even know it.” Parents tell Jackie that students post photos of this on social media.

Samantha works with Jesse at Social Advocates for Youth. She was in high school when she visited her first hookah lounge. “I never smoked in my life, my first time I had a very small baby drag and then I was constipated all night and I got extremely nauseated.”

Samantha said flavoring tobacco really got started around 2010. This seems to line up with the 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that stated e-cigarette (vaping) use increased 900-percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015, far surpassing conventional cigarettes.

Oddly, all of this flavoring of hookah tobacco and e-juice came on the heels of the United States making it illegal to manufacture or sell flavored cigarettes (except menthol) in 2009. Same reason: to make it less attractive to children.

Samantha said children as young as twelve vape. It’s more attractive because it’s cheaper than cigarettes, with a good device costing $30 and product about $25. “If someone vapes everyday, that will last them about two weeks.”

While hookahs use tobacco with molasses or honey flavoring (shisha), vape devices use synthetic nicotine with different flavorings. Nicotine is the main chemical in cigarettes that causes addiction.

Samantha said vaping products can be found at most mom-and-pop liquor stores, but usually not at chains like 7-11.

The several local 7-11 stores I called said they do sell vape juice. At one Point Loma location, an employee tried to talk me into going with the Marlboro pods. “If you buy the starter kit, you get the [e-juice] cartridge for free.”

Employees of Walmart, Circle K, Rite Aid, and Walgreen’s all rattled off their candy-flavored vape juice selections over the phone to me.

The government is cracking down on retailers that sell vape products to minors. Stores nationwide being chastised run the gamut from 7-11, mini-marts, tobacco shops, gas stations, liquor stores and grocery stores.

It’s unclear why the government waited so long to dip its toe into the wild west of vaping. The Food and Drug Administration didn’t have jurisdiction until late-2016.

Virtue Vape, the manufacturer of popular Unicorn Cakes, a vaping liquid that is supposed to taste like blueberry pancakes, is one of the manufacturers that received a warning letter this month.

Catalina Velasquez of Virtue Vape said, “[The Food and Drug Administration] told us we have to remove images of unicorns and pancakes because children are attracted to them. They are okay with the name ‘Unicorn Cakes.'” No other directions were given except to submit a new label within 15 business days for approval. “This whole thing has been very shocking. We have three people working on it day and night.”

Never having been a smoker, Velasquez likes to vape zero-nicotine Unicorn Cakes. “I like the sensation, it’s like eating pancakes without the calories.” Even without nicotine, the FDA told Velasquez they still classify “zero-nicotine Unicorn Cakes” as a tobacco product so the images of unicorns and pancakes have to go.

I asked Velasquez about the reasoning behind the cartoon unicorn packaging. “We never did it to connect with children, it was to remind grown-ups of when they were a kid.”

I asked her who she thought was behind the big push to change the packaging. ‚ÄúWhat I can tell you is that in some countries that we have visited the rumors are that big tobacco companies are trying to stop the e-liquid market. Even though they are involved in it, they are losing money. They want to regulate it so they are the only ones to sell it. They don’t care about the marijuana business which is bad for kids, they care more about e-liquids.”

In January, Philip Morris, the creator of the Marlboro Man introduced in the 1920s to entice ladies to light up — announced plans to quit cigarettes. Translation: they are going to kick old-school cigarettes to the curb to focus on cornering the e-cigarette market.

I asked Kenji, who works at a local vape shop, how more generic product packaging might impact the retail side. “The packaging isn’t a huge factor. I don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs a big concern because customers rarely ask. Though, when someone looks at the wall of juice, before they even smell it, something has to catch their eye. For example, we have five different strawberry candy juices. The most visual packaging, even if it’s not superior, will get their attention.”

Kenji said he gets where those that want to keep kids safe are coming from. “It’s not anyone’s intention to attract kids.” Though, as Velasquez suggested, he said it’s possible big tobacco companies may be behind this big push to squash the little guy’s market share. “Last year, tobacco lobbyists made it a lot harder by passing a law making it illegal for customers to sample juices.”

Kenji said nicotine-free vaping juices are a niche market and not as popular as the ones with nicotine, though he said it’s better for vaping tricks and his coworker does use it as a no-calorie midnight snack. Kenji said the nicotine-free juices include vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, and flavoring. Next to cigarette smoke, “it smells like nothing except the scent of whatever the flavor is.” The nicotine juices have the same ingredients but with nicotine.

The Food and Drug Administration is accepting public comments about flavoring and other related issues into June 2018. Besides flavoring, there may be a push to make e-cigarette devices looking more like actual cigarettes.

Julie Stalmer/San Diego Reader

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