With teen vaping under fire, Great Barrington might restrict flavored nonnicotine vape products

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Colorful packaging. Flavors like creme and bubble gum.

The town might soon further crack down on the sale of e-cigarette cartridges whose flavors are being blamed for a nationwide teen vaping epidemic.

Great Barrington already restricts the purchase of flavored e-cigarette products to those 21 and younger.

Stores that are not "adult only" can't sell flavored vaping cartridges, for instance. And a convenience store where those younger than 21 might be present can't sell any flavored vaping products.

But in what is also a national and countywide effort to keep young people away from what can be high levels of nicotine and chemicals found in vapor, local officials also are considering a restriction on flavored nonnicotine vaping products like cannabidiol oil, known as CBD oil, and hemp products.

"The point of the flavor ban is to limit youth access," said Rebecca Jurczyk, health agent at the Department of Health. "Flavors like bubble gum, and mango in these little Juul pods."

Jurczyk, referring to the popular Juul brand, explained that local public health departments only have jurisdiction over stores that sell tobacco, and in other stores, only those liquids or oils that can be vaped.

She said the Board of Health is gathering and reviewing information ahead of making a decision in the coming months about the nonnicotine flavor restriction.

James Wilusz, executive director at Lee's Tri-Town Health Department, said studies have found that so-called nonnicotine-flavored electronic juices aren't necessarily safe.

"They still had traces of nicotine," he said. "They say there's no nicotine, but there is."

Wilusz is one of many public health officials, not to mention parents and school authorities, who are lamenting the surge in the smokeless, easily hidden and camouflaged e-cigarette known as a vape or a Juul, a sleek vaping instrument that looks like a thumb drive.

Teen vaping rose around 75% last year nationwide, and the vapor market is booming and expected to hit $11.7 billion by 2022. Regulators and health officials say companies have secured their market by aggressively pursuing teens. The flavors as a ploy have set off a new alarm.

In 2018, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey launched an investigation into Juul's apparent marketing to teens. And Juul turned around and fortified itself by having Healey's predecessor, Martha Coakley, join the company's government affairs team.

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The Food and Drug Administration also is concerned about flavors as a marketing tool.

If finalized, the agency's draft proposal released in March attempts to restrict flavored e-cigarette products and might result in wider changes to the vapor market.

Local muscle

But Berkshire County towns aren't waiting around for the FDA.

"I give them kudos, but we can't wait for the FDA," Wilusz said. "There is no oversight from the federal government, and now we have the CBD oil phenomenon."

He said the CBD oil "nonnicotine" vape pod packages are attractive and closely resemble Juul packets. He worries that it's this sort of thing that's roping teens in. And he said there is data that shows that flavors do that.

"It's attractive, cheap," he said, adding that taking on the nonnicotine-flavored market is an attempt to get ahead of the next problem. "We don't want to keep playing this whack-a-mole game."

Tri-Town oversees Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, but also tobacco control as part of a coalition of 14 Berkshire County towns. Right now, Wilusz said that Pittsfield, Adams, Lanesborough and Williamstown already have flavor restrictions in place for those younger than 21, and that includes nonnicotine products.

North Adams is weighing the nonnicotine flavor restriction. And Lee, Stockbridge and Lenox will meet in June to decide on local restrictions, he said.

Wilusz said flavors are the modern form of profiteering from nicotine addiction, and that has changed the game.

"Tobacco is different than it was when we were kids," he said. "It's just peppered with flavors, bright colors."

Wilusz, who has worked in public health for 20 years, said one of the great things about Massachusetts law is that it allows local boards of health to take action.

"We can't wait for the state or federal government," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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