‘Time is running out’: Connecticut advocates push for ban on flavored vaping products

Connecticut raised its tobacco purchase age to 21 back in 2019, but youth advocates and health care experts say that hasn’t stopped flavored vaping and e-cigarette products from winding up in the hands of teens and adolescents.

“A lot of the time, people have older siblings and friends where they get these products from,” said Phoebe Lampos, a junior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School who testified Monday before Connecticut legislators about what she’s observed among fellow students.

“Once these younger students have them from older children, they’ll distribute them in their grades and then soon it just becomes something in their grade,” she said, “and they can sell them or trade them or just share.”

Despite tighter federal restrictions on flavored e-cigarette products that took effect in 2020, supporters of a Connecticut bill say the state needs to implement its own ban on the sale of these products in order to drive down use among youth.

Efforts to pass a ban in the last two legislative sessions have failed as lawmakers could not come to a consensus, and concerns about economic impacts remained.

More than 2 million high school and middle school students nationally reported using e-cigarettes in 2021, according to the most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey. About 85% of them used e-cigarette products that have flavoring agents that taste like fruit, candy, mint and menthol.

Kimberly Estes, a health care professional and a state resident, told members of the Public Health Committee Monday during a public hearing about how her son first tried vaping at 10 years old.

“His continued vaping since then has been dictated completely by which flavorings he likes and which he avoids,” she said. “Non-flavoring products make him gag. He requires the flavorings to make nicotine palatable.”

Estes said because of his use of e-cigarettes, her son has become nicotine dependent and has developed a chronic cough and other health issues.

“Each time he goes to the pulmonologist, his pulmonary function is declining,” she said. “Time is running out. The long-term health effects are already setting in.”

Opponents of the legislation say a wholesale ban on all flavored e-cigarette products won’t entirely prevent teens from vaping. What it will do, they said, is hurt adult users and small businesses.

Cheryl Richter, 58, of Stamford, said e-cigarettes helped her quit smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes after 30 years.

E-cigarettes are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a method of tobacco smoking cessation. Some federal research indicates that e-cigarette use may lead specific types of smokers to quit traditional cigarettes, but scientists clarify that the data is still limited and more research needs to be done on the long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes.

“I thought this was a wonderful thing and I decided to not only advocate for these products, but I started my own business,” Richter said.

Richter did business in New York up until the state banned the sale of flavored e-cigarette and vaping products in May 2020.

Currently, Richter is the executive director of the New York State Vapor Association, which represents independently-owned vape shops and small manufacturers.

“We warned that there would be thousands of layoffs,” she told Connecticut lawmakers. “We employed over 4,000 people. We now believe that we have lost 3,500 of those jobs.”

Instead of a statewide ban on all flavored products, Richter suggested Connecticut limit sale locations to age-restricted establishments, like liquor stores, dispensaries and businesses that only admit people 21 years and older.

“When you have these products in every gas station and every convenience store and grocery store and delis, right next to candy, that’s where kids are seeing them,” she said.

Connecticut owners of businesses that sell vaping products echoed Richter’s concerns, and quoted losses of revenue at the local and state levels.

A report by the state Office of Fiscal Analysis on similar legislation to ban flavored vape products estimated that a law would cause Connecticut to lose about $2.5 million in tax revenue annually.

But Kevin O’Flaherty, director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Northeast Region, pushed back against these arguments.

“To sacrifice generation after generation of kids to a tobacco addiction, because we’re afraid to either lose revenue from those sales or even to help a relative amount of a handful of adults to quit, I think is reprehensible,” he said as he testified in support of this year’s ban proposal.

The bill would need majority support in the Public Health Committee before moving on to the House and Senate for consideration.

Nicole Leonard/CPR