San Francisco tried to ban candy-flavored vape cigarettes, but a tobacco industry-funded campaign has put that ban on the ballot for public vote.


San Francisco wants to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. Included in the potential ban, a high-tech vaping device called a JUUL. It’s marketed to help adult smokers quit regular cigarettes. But as Shia Levitt reports, the flavors and sleek design have become wildly popular among teens.

SHIA LEVITT, BYLINE: JUUL uses nicotine salts to deliver a hit that closely replicates that of a cigarette. JUULing – it’s a verb now – started just three years ago but already makes up more than half of the multibillion-dollar e-cigarette market. In San Francisco, 14-year-olds Emma (ph) and Jaclyn (ph) say there are lots of reasons why their friends love JUUL. We’re not using their last names because JUULing is illegal here, if you’re under 21.

JACLYN: It’s easier to hide. And it doesn’t taste bad. And there’s no tobacco.

EMMA: It also doesn’t – the smell doesn’t stick on you, the nicotine smell.

LEVITT: Their friends put stickers or engravings on the devices so they can tell them apart. The head rush and sweet fruity taste of the flavor pods are appealing, too.

JACLYN: Almost everyone I know, I think, is a little bit or a lot addicted because it’s not…

LEVITT: Public health advocates have long known that flavors attract young people. April Roeseler is with California’s Department of Public Health.

APRIL ROESELER: Eighty percent of kids who use tobacco products start with a flavored tobacco product.

LEVITT: And a lot of kids who would never have tried a cigarette are using e-cigarettes, like JUUL. There’s also a documented gateway effect. If you start with e-cigs, you’re more likely to go on to old-fashioned cigarettes. But all of this has flown under the radar.

ROESELER: It doesn’t smell like a pack of cigarettes. It doesn’t look like a pack of cigarettes. There’s really some deception going on here. And parents and school teachers need to be aware.

LEVITT: Last year, San Francisco banned the sale of all flavored vaping liquids and tobacco products. But a petition forced the voter referendum set for June. The measure is known as Prop E. And the main opponents – the tobacco industry. RJ Reynolds is the sole funder of the No on E campaign, to the tune of nearly $12 million so far. Slogans include bans and prohibitions don’t work and that voting no preserves adult choice.

GREGORY CONLEY: We know that adults like flavors.

LEVITT: Gregory Conley is with the American Vaping Association, a one-man operation speaking for the No on Prop E campaign. R.J. Reynolds sent us to him. Conley says fruit- and dessert-flavored cigarettes are helping adult smokers quit traditional smoking.

CONLEY: As long as you have people switching and as long as you have the smoking rate dramatically declining, you are going to see positive public health effects almost regardless of how many people actually end up using the product.

LEVITT: But it’s a bit more complicated. There’s mounting evidence that e-cigarettes cause many of the same health problems as old-fashioned smoking. And if you look at the total amount of kids using nicotine products, that’s actually gone up in recent years. Stan Glantz directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

STAN GLANTZ: Simply shifting people from cigarettes to e-cigarettes or to some of these other new products is just going to prolong the tobacco epidemic.

LEVITT: The FDA began a crackdown in April on vaping sales to teens, including warning retailers who sell JUULs to minors. In response, JUUL Labs announced they’d be investing $30 million to combat underage use of their products. San Francisco’s flavored vaping ban, if upheld, would be the toughest restrictions in the nation. It could set a precedent for flavored tobacco restrictions elsewhere in the country.

For NPR News, I’m Shia Levitt in San Francisco.


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