Health

The Food and Drug Administration is considering a limit or ban on e-cigarette flavors and is seeking public comment on the matter. Research shows many teens start using electronic cigarettes — or vaping — because of the variety of flavors, and some health experts think those flavors are what keeps young people coming back for more.

Marty Wade, the manager at Louisville retailer Up N’ Smoke, said the variety in flavors does make vape pens much more appealing than the traditional cigarette.

“You’ve got the Golden Honey Graham cereal with roasted nut clusters, drenched in creamy milk layered with sliced banana,” Wade said. “Sounds pretty tasty, right?

The FDA’s fact-finding mission could result in a limit or ban on flavored cigarettes and e-cigarettes, which are also known as e-hookahs or vape pens. In 2015, about 1 in 4 teens nationwide reported smoking an e-cigarette, a product lauded by the vaping industry as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Mitch Zeller, the head of tobacco policy at the FDA, said the concern about e-cigarettes is twofold. Some of the ingredients that flavor the product have been found to be toxic, and research is still emerging on that. Zeller said the other concern is that the flavored e-cigarettes are often marketed to teenagers as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

“If kids are walking around thinking, ‘I can experiment with an e-cigarette because it’s safer,’ they shouldn’t. No teenager should be taking any nicotine delivery product,” Zeller said. “You can get addicted to it and unfortunately the data shows that kids who experiment with an e-cigarette are more likely to be smoking a regular cigarette 12 months down the road than kids who never experimented with an e-cigarette.”

While fewer teens are smoking traditional cigarettes, almost 42 percent of Kentucky high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes, according to a 2015 poll.

With the growing popularity of flavored vaping products, some health experts worry that e-cigarettes will bring a major public health issue in the coming decade. Louisville resident Sasha Torres, 30, was watching her three children play in Central Park on Tuesday. She said she could see how a flavored e-cigarette could be much more attractive to a teen than a traditional cigarette.

Torres said that when she was growing up, there were no e-cigarettes but there were flavored menthol cigarettes. She said she tried to smoke once but didn’t like the taste or smell. But had she tried a honey graham cereal-flavored e-cigarette at the age of 16, she may have felt differently.

“I probably would have thought it was good,” Torres said. “I think flavoring will just increase teenagers to be tempted with it, like it’s candy”

There’s also a flip-side to the appeal of e-cigarette flavors, which some say is a good thing.

“On the other hand, there’s a potentially positive role that flavors are playing in helping addicted cigarette smokers successfully quit and switch to e-cigarettes,” said Zeller from the FDA.

Marty Wade, at Up N’ Smoke, said e-cigarette liquid can be bought with different levels of nicotine. He said many older customers – mostly over the age of 35 – use the different levels to transition off of traditional cigarettes.

“A lot of people try to start off with the high nicotine level and over the course of time go down until they eventually have a zero level of nicotine in them,” Wade said. “And then the goal is accomplished.”

The Kentucky Smoke Free Association, which represents e-cigarette makers and retailers, touts that e-cigarettes are a much less harmful product than traditional cigarettes. They didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

In addition to exploring a limit on e-cigarette flavors, the FDA is seeking public comment on a proposal to create a nicotine limit in cigarettes. That could force manufacturers to create a minimally-addictive cigarette. Zeller said that could reduce the percentage of Americans who smoke from 15 to 2 percent. The public comment period for both issues close in June.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.