ITHACA, N.Y. — The popular vaping brand Juul announced this week that it will discontinue a number of flavors and end social media accounts, at the same time acknowledging that a serious problem with young people using e-cigarettes has developed.

E-cigarettes have exploded in popularity in recent years. They’re advertised in several windows on the Ithaca Commons and can be easily found in individual shops, convenience stores and online. They are marketed as a way to help cigarette smokers quit tobacco, and often do just that. But, their popularity with youth has reached “epidemic levels,” some say, and stricter regulations are likely coming soon.

E-cigarettes work by heating liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals to make an aerosol. The liquid for the pods, often called “e-juice” or “e-liquid,” comes in all sorts of flavors, and some flavors seem obviously eye-catching to young people. Flavors like “sour gummy,” “candy crush” or “bubble gum” can easily be found online. Though Juul does not sell candy flavors, it announced this week that it has stopped sales for its mango, fruit, creme and cucumber flavors to more than 90,000 retail stores. The flavors will still be available online, but through a strict age verification system, the company’s action plan states.

E-cigarette liquids are currently available in flavors like “blu razz” and “key lime.” (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)
E-cigarette liquids are currently available in flavors like “blu razz” and “key lime.” (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)

The shift away from fruity, appealing flavors comes pretty late in the game, said Jeff Niederdeppe, an associate professor of communication at Cornell. Though the companies say they are geared toward people switching away from cigarettes, Niederdeppe said, “You have to wonder if cotton candy crush is really what a smoker who’s looking to switch is likely to choose.”

At the Exscape Smoke Shop and Vapor Lounge on the Ithaca Commons, employee Zach Tompkins said some customers quitting conventional cigarettes do turn to unconventional e-liquid flavors. Some longtime smokers, Tompkins said, find it easier to quit with flavors that don’t remind them of tobacco.

Even so, Tompkins said most people who purchase Juul products at the store are in their early 20s. “It’s definitely the younger generation coming in wanting Juul, a majority of the time,” he said. Tompkins attributes the appeal of Juul less to its flavors than to the e-cigarette’s sleek, small design. “It’s the cool new thing,” he said, “and it’s easy to hide from parents.”

Juul’s move to cut back on flavored products comes ahead of likely FDA regulations on e-cigarette liquids.

In September, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement declaring underage nicotine use was reaching epidemic levels. “One factor we’re closely evaluating is the availability of characterizing flavors. We know that the flavors play an important role in driving the youth appeal. And in view of the trends underway, we may take steps to curtail the marketing and selling of flavored products,” Gottlieb wrote.

The FDA is expected to announce regulations that would ban the sale of fruity and sweet flavored e-cigarette liquids at gas stations and convenience stores, while allowing them at more tightly regulated vape and tobacco shops, according to reporting by the Washington Post. Tobacco, menthol, and mint flavors, which are intended to help cigarette smokers transition to e-cigarettes, would continue to be available at all retail outlets.

New York, meanwhile, is considering a ban on e-liquid flavors other than tobacco or menthol for all retailers across the state. The state Department of Health filed a proposed rule change on Nov. 7 but has since withdrawn the proposal pending further review. The proposed rule stated, “Regulations are necessary to address the alarming increase of e-cigarette use among New York’s youth,” and said, “restricting the availability of flavored e-liquids will deter youth from initiating e-cigarette use and reduce ongoing e-cigarette use.”

Marketing has shifted over the years for Juul Labs, which has been at the center of an FDA investigation about whether it deliberately marketed its devices to youth. In a statement, Juul Labs said it was never their intent to have youth use their products.

“We don’t want anyone who doesn’t smoke, or already use nicotine, to use JUUL products. We certainly don’t want youth using the product. It is bad for public health, and it is bad for our mission.”

Even if marketing does shift and flavors do come off the shelves, Niederdeppe said it doesn’t help all of the young people who have become addicted to nicotine.

At the local level, the Health and Human Services Committee of Tompkins County Legislature will be considering local licensure for retail tobacco, vaping and smoking paraphernalia because while the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance requires that retailers obtain a license to sell tobacco products, there is no system of registering retail outlets that sell vaping devices, materials in the agenda from Tobacco Free Tompkins state.

State data shows that e-cigarettes have become increasingly popular with middle school and high school students in recent years. In 2016, 14 percent of middle school students said they had tried e-cigarettes compared with about 7 percent in 2014. At the high school level, 44 percent of high school students indicated they had tried e-cigarettes compared to 2014.

Ted Schiele, of Tobacco Free Tompkins, said while they don’t have the latest data about use in Tompkins County, he said there’s “no reason to believe it’s not a big problem here.”

For the first time this year, students in Tompkins County will be surveyed about vaping. Results will likely be available early next year. The youth survey takes place every two years and is a collaborative effort between Tompkins County Youth Services, the Community Coalition for Healthy Youth and a federal grant, TST BOCES, the Alcohol & Drug Council and local schools.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.