Utah lawmakers push feds to crack down on teen vaping, illegal e-cigarettes

Noah Kinikini and Roxann Christopherson feel a diseased pig lung and a healthy pig lung, respectively, while learning about the dangers of vaping, nicotine and tobacco products, at Hawthorn Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6, 2020. Two Utah lawmakers are among those calling for the Justice Department to crack down on teen vaping and illegal e-cigarettes.

Noah Kinikini and Roxann Christopherson feel a diseased pig lung and a healthy pig lung, respectively, while learning about the dangers of vaping, nicotine and tobacco products, at Hawthorn Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6, 2020. Two Utah lawmakers are among those calling for the Justice Department to crack down on teen vaping and illegal e-cigarettes. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)


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WASHINGTON — Utah Sen. Mike Lee said he sees the epidemic of youth addiction to e-cigarettes as a real problem.

"Those who try to get our kids hooked on nicotine should be ashamed of themselves," said Lee, R-Utah, on Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Combatting the Youth Vaping Epidemic by Enhancing Enforcement Against Illegal e-Cigarettes." He pointed to studies showing that young e-cigarette users are more likely to consume marijuana and other drugs.

"The federal government has said that it wants to be tough on tobacco, and in saying that it's issued a bunch of regulations for legal approval, only then to sit on those applications for legal products in the U.S. produced by U.S. companies while turning a blind eye to illegal Chinese imports. Small businesses selling products are left with little to no guidance as to what's legal and what's illicit," said Lee.

The Utah senator noted, "Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 1,000% increase in high school students' use of disposable e-cigarettes," adding, "That's a very significant jump."

Directing his question at Arun Rao, the deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department's Consumer Protection Branch, Lee questioned the lack of civil enforcement action taken by his agency, despite the troubling statistics and an estimated $3.5 billion market.

Rao said the Consumer Protection Branch is working with law enforcement partners, including the U.S. Marshals Service, for the seizure of these products.

Lee isn't the only Utah congressional leader urging the Justice Department to act. The House Caucus to End the Youth Vaping Epidemic, of which Rep. Celeste Maloy is a member, sent a letter to the Consumer Protection Branch on April 10, asking about "the lack of enforcement in prosecuting illegal flavored vaping products."

"FDA, to date, has not authorized a flavored vaping product. Yet unauthorized vaping products, the majority of which come from the People's Republic of China, have flooded the market and continue to contribute significantly to underage vaping rates," the letter said. It asked a series of questions about the DOJ's investigations into illegal vape devices in the last three years, requesting a response by May 30.


Those who try to get our kids hooked on nicotine should be ashamed of themselves,.

–Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah


The DOJ didn't issue an official response, which isn't unusual. But, as Maloy's office noted, the DOJ and the FDA launched a multiagency task force to curb the distribution and sale of illegal e-cigarettes on June 10.

"Enforcement against illegal e-cigarettes is a multipronged issue that necessitates a multipronged response," said Dr. Brian King, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products. "This 'All Government' approach — including the creation of this new Task Force — will bring the collective resources and experience of the federal government to bear on this pressing public health issue."

The Food and Drug Administration's National Youth Tobacco Survey found cigarette and cigar use is at an all-time low while e-cigarettes continue to be a popular product among students — almost 9 out of 10 use flavored e-cigarettes.

Back in 2020, the FDA outlawed flavored cartridge-based reusable e-cigarettes. But the regulation said nothing about disposable devices, a loophole that manufacturers use to continue profiting off of youth-enticing flavors like cotton candy and watermelon bubble gum, according to the Deseret News .

But that doesn't mean states can't take action. Nearly all have restricted the sale of these products to minors. In addition to this, retailers in Utah need a license to sell disposable vapes.

Utah also doesn't allow indoor vaping and imposes a tax and nicotine-strength limitations on e-cigarettes. More recently, in March, Gov. Spencer Cox banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. This will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

The findings from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services point to a decline from 12.4% of teens who vape in 2019 to 7.4% in 2023. The report attributed the success to the support young students have received from their parents and schools.

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Gitanjali Poonia
Gitanjali Poonia is an early career journalist who writes about politics, culture and climate change. Driven by her upbringing in New Delhi, India, she takes pride in reporting on underserved and under-covered communities. She holds a bachelor’s in electronic media from San Francisco State University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.

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