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Flavored products are driving the teen vaping epidemic. Denver should ban them.



Due to COVID-19, Coloradans have paid more attention to health issues over the past year than we have in decades. And while we know that COVID-19 is not as deadly to teens as it is to adults, particularly older adults, this pandemic is exacerbating an already concerning situation for Colorado teens — what the U.S. Surgeon General has named an epidemic — teen vaping.

In the medical community, we’ve learned a lot about the impact of COVID-19 on the body since the pandemic began. A recent research study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found a link between vaping and COVID-19 among teenagers and young adults. Among the study participants who were tested for COVID-19, those who had used e-cigarettes were five to seven times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

As a pediatric lung specialist and medical director for the Breathing Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, I’ve been especially focused on the other impacts of COVID-19 on our teens and young people. During the pandemic, we have all had challenges to overcome. Kids are dealing with higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression, which can all be worsened with the use of vape. With their academic and social lives already significantly altered by the pandemic, we cannot afford to sacrifice the health of this generation to deadly tobacco.

Part of what continues to drive this vaping epidemic is access to flavored vaping products. In fact, research shows that four in five kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product, and nearly 83% of kids who vape are using flavored products. E-cigarettes are sold in over 15,000 flavors. I would argue that many of these flavored vape products — with flavors such as popcorn, grape and tropical slushy, as well as colorful packaging that looks like something you would get from an ice cream truck — are specifically targeted at teens.

According to the recently released Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the percent of youth in our state who use e-cigarettes remains high. Among Denver youth, 38.9% responded having ever used an electronic vapor product. The survey also revealed that 20.5% of youth in Denver use e-cigarettes specifically because they are flavored. Research has shown that teens who begin smoking by using e-cigarettes are more likely to become cigarette smokers, leading to a lifetime of addiction. And we know that about half of young smokers use menthol cigarettes, demonstrating the impact flavored products, including menthol, have on youth use.

On top of this, highly addictive nicotine has damaging effects on kids, including harming the development of parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control. And the load of nicotine in vaping products is high – just one Juul pod has as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

In the past few years in Colorado, we’ve taken huge leaps in combating the teen vaping epidemic by prohibiting the use of these products in public indoor spaces and increasing the age of sales to 21. Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Jared Polis and many early childhood and public health advocates, we also witnessed the successful passage of Proposition EE on the November ballot, which increases the tax on tobacco and nicotine products. Locally, the city of Denver’s work to adopt tobacco retail licensing and raise the minimum age of sale to 21 last year was a critical first step in keeping tobacco out of the hands of children and teens. But these policies alone do not address the skyrocketing use of flavored tobacco products by young people. Further action is needed to prevent access to flavored tobacco products.

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