Shellie Villarreal: Officials’ efforts to cap nicotine levels in Utah will send tobacco users back to cigarettes

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Aaron Frazier, executive director of Utah Smoke-Free Association, exhales aerosol from a second generation e-cigarette. A battery in the device vaporizes the liquid and gives a similar feel to smoking tobacco cigarettes.

Like those who enjoy their caffeine first thing in the morning, for a pick-me-up in the afternoon or after a good meal, I enjoy nicotine.

For years, I got my nicotine fix from traditional cigarettes. At one point, I was up to a pack a day. But, now, I’ve quit. It took me a while, but I was able to kick a habit that kills thousands of Americans each year. I applaud people who can quit cold turkey. I don’t know any of these people, but I assume they’re out there because plenty of lawmakers think it’s something all smokers should be able to do – to just quit.

Thankfully, I was able to achieve my personal goal of quitting by trying e-cigarettes. Unfortunately, the use of e-cigarettes, also known as vaping is getting a bad rap. Despite federal, and now most state, laws prohibiting the sales of tobacco products to anyone under 21, young people are getting their hands on them in illegal and tricky ways. Thankfully, here in Utah, the rate of young people using traditional cigarettes (2.2%) and e-cigarettes (9.7%) is much lower compared to the rest of the nation where 6% of young people are current smokers and 32% use vapor products. This is according to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey done in 2019.

Even though we’re doing a better job than just about every other state in this area, state health officials are about to reverse this trend by removing many of the products that keep adult smokers like me from returning to the dangerous habit.

Utah Department of Health officials are proposing making it illegal to sell vapor products with more than 3% nicotine in them by September of this year. Why is this concerning to former smokers like me? One of the reasons I felt confident kicking smoking for good is that vapor products with the same levels of nicotine as traditional cigarettes offer the same satisfaction.

I tried to quit with e-cigarettes containing less than 3% nicotine, but it was only when I used the one with 5% nicotine that I was successful. Like the coffee drinker who likes a strong, bold coffee loaded with caffeine, I like a strong cigarette and now, thankfully, a less harmful, but just as satisfying e-cigarette. Take that away suddenly, and I can almost guarantee you that just about every former smoker I know, will go back to smoking more harmful cigarettes or turn to the black market.

If the name of the game is improving public health, I highly recommend public officials take a closer look at the appeal of traditional cigarettes, rather than less harmful alternatives like e-cigarettes. We should be encouraging smokers like me to find acceptable alternatives rather than demonizing these products. Give us consumer-acceptable alternatives to cigarettes and accurate information about the differences in risk. Make less harmful products accessible on the retail level. Give us product choices like nicotine patches, lozenges, nasal sprays, and, yes, vapor products. Allow for appropriate flavors with varying ranges of nicotine levels and tax these products reasonably.

Capping nicotine levels in tobacco products is like watering down your coffee with cold tap water. Yuck. It’s not appealing. You’ll still drink that coffee to get your caffeine fix. You’ll just drink more of it. Smokers will just smoke more cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. Recovering smokers will just use more e-cigarettes, turn to the illicit market to get the stronger versions or they’ll simply just turn back to smoking, which will then have tobacco users smoking more cigarettes to get the zing we’ve become accustomed to.

Capping nicotine levels in e-cigarette products popular with former smokers will send us right back to where we started – smoking cigarettes. It’s a place we’d rather not be again.

Shellie Villarreal

Shellie Villarreal is a resident of Ogden and is a former smoker who kicked her habit using e-cigarettes.