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Flavored vapes are supposed to be illegal, but they're still widely available

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration began cracking down on vaping back in 2020 by requiring products be approved for sale. To date, only 23 e-cigarette products are legal to sell, and they are all tobacco-flavored. Yet, illegal products - notably, the very popular disposable and flavored vapes - remain widely available online, in stores. NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains why.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Nancy Heredia-Villanueva's oldest daughter had just started high school when she made a discovery that led her into a frustrating and convoluted drama.

NANCY HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: Her backpack was kind of hanging open, and I went to zip it up. And she got really defensive about it, and a fight ensued. It was like a tug-of-war over the backpack.

NOGUCHI: Her daughter wrested it away, then locked herself in a bathroom. Villanueva enlisted her husband.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: Me and him - we, like, tore the whole bathroom apart, and we found four vapes behind the bathroom mirror.

NOGUCHI: Villanueva was shocked. She had no idea her daughter, a soccer player, had gotten hooked on vaping the year prior. She'd neither seen nor smelled vapors from the colorful candy-flavored disposable e-cigarettes. Sale of those are illegal under both federal and New Jersey state law. But her daughter and other underage friends bought them at a gas station in a town next to Dunellen, where they live. Enraged, Villanueva and another parent confronted the store's cashier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: I want to know why you're selling our kids vapes.

NOGUCHI: Villanueva filmed the video, then posted it on a mom's group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: But you have sold them vapes because all our kids bought vapes from this store.

NOGUCHI: That video went viral. Responses to it startled her.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: I was getting death threats. Like, my kids were threatened. My husband was threatened.

NOGUCHI: Often by kids who frequented that gas station.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: I didn't even realize until that happened that it was such a huge issue. All the kids in all the local towns and cities all knew about that place, and they were upset that I had brought to light that they were selling to underage kids.

NOGUCHI: Regulators want to restrict e-cigarette use to adults. But in reality, the market for illegal vapes that appeal to young people continues to expand. Kristy Marynak is a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her recent analysis shows explosive growth, especially of unapproved products.

KRISTY MARYNAK: The number of brands increased by 46% over two years to about 200 brands, and those brands market thousands of products. This is an industry that is very motivated to stay in business and continue marketing products that are highly addictive and heavily flavored.

NOGUCHI: Products that re-popularized use - nicotine use within the past decade.

RICHARD MARIANOS: And you see an increase of over 2,000% of high school users using disposables now that the FDA has said is illegal - that is contraband.

NOGUCHI: Richard Marianos is a former assistant director at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He says nearly all of the world's e-cigarettes - 90% - come from factories in Shenzhen, China. But poor diplomatic relations make it hard to stop the influx.

MARIANOS: As you can see from dealing with the economy or spying or balloons being flown over the United States - that stopping producing vapes to kids is not their top priority.

NOGUCHI: Recently, the FDA took more steps. It banned imports of some popular black market products, including Elfbar and Esco Bar. It also sent warnings to nearly 200 retailers selling them. Will such measures work? Dorian Fuhrman isn't sure. She co-founded Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes.

DORIAN FUHRMAN: Hopefully we will see a slowdown in the flood of products that are coming in through China.

NOGUCHI: But she says the constant introduction of new brands and products makes it hard to close loopholes.

FUHRMAN: Tomorrow you might have a totally different brand. Like, you have these brands called Fume. You have other brands, which means that they're going to have to be very comprehensive in the names of the brands that they put on these lists.

NOGUCHI: That's why many anti-smoking advocates argue local inspection of retailers and fines are necessary. But Nancy Heredia-Villanueva, the mom who stormed the gas station, says her local authorities haven't shown interest. First, she reported the store to police.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: I had to actually email ordinances to the detective 'cause he had no idea. And then, even then, he's like, well, what am I supposed to do about it?

NOGUCHI: Then she complained to the mayor.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: What is being done? And I pretty much got nowhere with that either. There's lots of laws in the state of New Jersey, there's - even in our own town. But there's not a plan as to how to enforce it.

NOGUCHI: Frank Armstrong owns Blue Ridge Tobacco, a chain with seven tobacco stores in North Carolina and Virginia. He says local inspectors already monitor for underage sales and now should crack down on sales of illegal vapes. He's removed products the FDA cited from his shelves but noticed they're still available elsewhere.

FRANK ARMSTRONG: Today I went online and said, OK, if I wanted to get Elfbars, where would I get them? You go online - look at all the people that are selling them.

NOGUCHI: So Armstrong says stores need clarity about which products are legal to sell, as well as inspections to back it up.

ARMSTRONG: If there's no enforcement, then we're the only ones that are taking them off the shelves, and our competition is not. Therefore, then I lose business to the guy down the street.

NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, the fight continues for New Jersey mom Nancy Heredia-Villanueva, a year and a half after discovering her daughter's vapes. She says education and even awareness remain a challenge.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: A lot of parents are ignorant to the fact, like, oh, my kid's not doing that. I was one of those parents.

NOGUCHI: Her daughter, now 16, thought vapes were harmless, like fruit-flavored water. But, in fact, Villanueva says her daughter went through withdrawals before eventually quitting.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: I feel like it impacted her mental health, too. You know, it's been very difficult. Like, I just feel like she wasn't the same after that.

NOGUCHI: Villanueva says she still gets threats, but says it only makes her more outspoken.

HEREDIA-VILLANUEVA: But I didn't back down. I mean, I'm not the type of person - especially when it comes to my children and their safety and their well-being, I'm not going to back down.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.