Amid a flurry of legislative proposals aimed at restricting the sale and use of vaping products in Utah, recent polling shows strong support among the state’s residents for banning flavored e-cigarettes.
"They’re like toys to kids, and the flavors are like treats. They’re obviously targeting children,” said Joe Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, at a news conference Wednesday to promote anti-vaping measures ranging from a new excise tax on vape products to a requirement that schools discipline students caught with e-cigarettes.
In a poll of 500 Utahns this month by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University, 65% said they approved of efforts to ban flavored e-cigarettes, with 54% voicing strong approval. Just 24% said they disapproved.
Majority approval spanned nearly every cross-section of those polled: gender, age, race, political identifiers, education level, religion, and all locations in Utah. Support was less than 50% only among those who identified as “somewhat active” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (48%) and supporters of presidential candidate Andrew Yang (33%).
More than 12 percent of Utah adolescents vape, Gov. Gary Herbert said on Wednesday.
“I think many of them believe, inaccurately, that it’s less dangerous [than traditional cigarettes],” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. “Teens who would not otherwise be smoking are now. Many will on-board to combustibles.”
Most of the proposals under consideration in the Legislature specifically focus on youth vaping. Among the bills targeting vaping:
• SB37 imposes an excise tax on vaping products and creates regulations on how they are labeled and sold.
• SB40 creates a “Youth Electronic Cigarette, Marijuana, and Other Drug Prevention Program” in the state Department of Health.
• HB23 authorizes the state or local health departments to revoke a specialty tobacco shop’s license if it sells to customers under 20 years old starting July 1 of this year, or under 21 years old starting July 1, 2021.
• HB58 requires Utah schools to implement disciplinary policies for students found in possession of vaping products on school grounds. It also requires drug and alcohol prevention education for 4th or 5th graders, including vaping prevention.
• HB118 restricts the sale of flavored vape products to tobacco specialty shops, banning them from grocery and convenience stores or other general retailers.
The Utah Department of Health also has submitted draft rules that would restrict flavored vape products to tobacco shops.
“These policies ... will make a difference,” said Marc Watterson of the American Heart Association.
Proponents of the bills said teenagers are developmentally vulnerable to addiction, and the high-dose nicotine hits of e-cigarettes could be setting them up for other substance abuse problems.
“Kids can’t go the entire class period without taking a hit,” said Stuart Hudnall, vice principal at Herriman High School. “We have kids who are smoking during class. It’s happening in bathrooms, it’s happening in their cars.”
Katie Bertram, a 20-year-old student at Salt Lake Community College, said she first started vaping at 19 because her friends did and because the flavors were enticing.
“At first it was something I wanted to limit to just special occasions," Bertram said. "But then it turned into an every day thing.”
Bertram, an avid hiker and skier, said she began trying to quit when she noticed she was experiencing chest pain and difficulty breathing. “I knew that it was between vaping and my health,” she said.
Because vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, not much is known about the long-term health consequences — but in the short term, nicotine can raise a person’s blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, said Dan Cox, a Utah cardiologist.
Herbert pointed to 134 cases of vaping-related lung injuries confirmed in Utah since patients who vape began reporting mysterious respiratory and digestive symptoms this summer; federal epidemiologists have since linked the illness to additives in THC vape cartridges, which already are illegal in Utah.
An excise tax likely won’t deter vaping among adults, Miner said, but it may help to price out kids. “Children particularly are sensitive to the cost of these products,” he said.
Cox acknowledged that quitting can be difficult, but, he said, “We want to help.”
Bertram said she was only able to kick vaping with the support of her family. She urged parents who want to help their kids quit to remember that the process is difficult enough without punishment.
“It’s important to be understanding and be supportive before you ever blow up at them,” Bertram said.