Kid-friendly vaping products continue hooking Sonoma County teens

Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.” — U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Electronic cigarettes and vaping devices have hooked increasing numbers of American kids on nicotine at earlier ages, a disturbing trend engineered by executives at large tobacco companies who face a continually shrinking demand for their traditional product: cigarettes.

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that can negatively impact young people’s learning, memory and attention while causing anxiety, mood disorders and the permanent lowering of impulse control. E-cigarettes, which work by vaporizing nicotine liquid, also contain a variety of chemicals for which the impacts on lung tissue are largely unknown, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

Despite these obvious dangers, e-cigarette manufacturers produce a vast array of sweet, kid-friendly flavors to improve the taste and mask the harshness of the products, making it easier for teens and preteens to try them out.

The companies’ clever marketing ploy exceeded expectations and sales boomed, quickly reversing America’s decadeslong progress in reducing teen tobacco use. Today, millions of kids who never smoked a traditional cigarette are nicotine-addicted, including thousands here in Sonoma County.

Petaluma officials had the good sense to adopt a comprehensive tobacco retail licensing ordinance in 2022 that banned the sale of flavored tobacco products or electronic cigarettes in the city. The law requires local tobacco retailers to purchase a license with the fees underwriting enforcement of state tobacco sale laws, including store inspections and youth purchase compliance checks.

Unfortunately, and despite Californians having overwhelmingly voted to affirm a state law banning the sale of flavored nicotine products, the problem persists. According to a recent state Department of Education survey, nearly 50% of Sonoma County’s 11th graders said they have used an e-cigarette, and 76% said it was “fairly” or “very” easy to get them despite it being officially illegal to sell such devices to anyone under the age of 21.

According to Petaluma resident Pam Granger, chair of Tobacco Free Sonoma County Community Coalition, kids are still able to acquire the prohibited products due to a lack of uniform tobacco sale laws among local jurisdictions and because some merchants choose to sell them to minors illegally.

I confirmed this with Terese Voge, health program manager with the Sonoma County Public Health Department, which partners with cities like Petaluma to enforce tobacco sale. In recent inspections, she said, some retailers were found to be selling banned flavored products.

According to Voge, since Petaluma’s tobacco licensing law went into effect two years ago, the city has levied some “hefty financial penalties,” but no business has yet to lose its license due to multiple violations.

Selling vaping devices can be lucrative, Voge says, with merchants paying as little as $4 per unit wholesale and selling them to customers for $30 apiece.

But that source of income may soon disappear for Sonoma County tobacco merchants. A draft proposal expected to be approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors would prohibit the sale of electronic smoking devices and flavored nicotine products, making the policy governing tobacco retailers in unincorporated areas nearly identical to that in Petaluma as well as Sebastopol, Sonoma, Windsor and Healdsburg.

A similar law for the city of Santa Rosa is expected to be considered next month, says Voge, adding that Rohnert Park and Cotati may soon be looking at adopting similar laws.

And so the battle goes on. States, cities, and counties update their nicotine laws and tobacco companies continually adapt to keep profits flowing to their shareholders.

A Time magazine story last month titled “Zyn triggers fears of a new teen nicotine craze,” notes that the new product is “even more discreet” than e-cigarettes, “with no plumes of vapor.” All a user has to do is “tuck a small pouch of nicotine, additives, and flavorings under their lip for up to an hour.”

According to Voge, an underage decoy attempted to buy a Zyn product at 100 tobacco retailers in Sonoma County last year and was successful at 18 of them.

Right now, Voge says, there are three Zyn products that can’t be banned in California, but if history is any guide, that number is likely to increase.

It’s kind of like playing a deadly game of Whac-A-Mole.

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

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