Teen Vaping Dilemma: The Ease of Access to Illegal Disposable Vapes

The FDA cracked down on the nicotine devices, yet they’re stocked on many store shelves. The reason has to do with burgeoning overseas production, lack of clear rules, and lax enforcement.

Nancy Heredia-Villanueva recalls the day in the fall of 2021, shortly after her oldest daughter started high school, when she went to zip her open school backpack. Her daughter defensively pulled it away.

“A fight ensued, it was like a tug of war over the backpack,”smoking cigarette, with her daughter eventually wresting it away, then locking herself in the bathroom. Afterward, Villanueva and her husband “tore apart” the bathroom, finding four sweet-flavored vapes wedged behind the bathroom mirror.

Villanueva was shocked, wholly unaware her 14-year-old daughter had gotten hooked on vaping the year prior. She’d never seen nor smelled the fruit-flavored vapors from the brightly colored devices.

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, N.J., where they live. Enraged, Villanueva and another parent confronted the store’s cashier. Villanueva recorded a video, and posted it to a mom’s group. She says it went viral.

The response startled her. She and her family received a litany of threats from e-cigarette users – including children – who bought their vapes there. “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,” she says.

Disposable, flavored vapes are not supposed to be sold in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration began cracking down on vaping in 2020, by requiring e-cigarettes get regulatory approval in order to sell. To date, the agency hasauthorized only 23 specific e-cigarette products, all of which are tobacco-flavored alternatives to cigarettes, targeted at adults.

Yet illegal products — most notably the disposable and flavored vapes that are most popular among youth and young adults — remain widely available, online and in stores.

Why? The answer, in part, stems from how rapidly the market is growing.

The number of brands increased by 46% over three years to about 260 brands, each of which might market thousands of different products, explains Kristy Marynak, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of a recent study quantifying that explosive growth of unapproved products between 2020 and 2022.