OLEAN — The Cattaraugus County Board of Health has reached out to county lawmakers asking them to consider banning flavored e-liquid nicotine because of the impact it has had on teen vaping and nicotine addiction.
The Board of Health voted unanimously last week to recommend the county legislature pass a local law to outlaw flavored liquid nicotine used in vape cartridges that are popular among adolescents and are believed responsible for the spike in vaping by youths.
Three county lawmakers — County Legislature Chairman James J. Snyder, R-Olean, a member of the Board of Health, and legislative representatives Donna Vickman, R-Farmersville, the majority leader, and Barbara Hastings, D-Allegany — attended the meeting and agreed to cosponsor the local law.
“Electronic cigarettes are becoming an epidemic among adolescents,” said Dr. Kevin Watkins, county public health director, in an interview. “It appears it has become an epidemic even in Cattaraugus County. The Board of Health feel they need to become more proactive.”
Watkins said if enacted, it would be the first county in Western New York to do so. Cattaraugus County was an early county to ban indoor smoking and a leader in the move to require a person to be 21 to purchase tobacco products.
So far, only Albany County and Suffolk County have taken steps to ban flavored nicotine, Watkins said.
“Normally Cattaraugus County tends to move a little quicker than other counties when it comes to protecting the health of our youth,” he said.
The aim is to limit the amount of flavored nicotine being sold in Cattaraugus County, Watkins said.
“Surveys show 81 percent of teens have reported using e-cigarettes,” Watkins said. “And the products most likely to entice them are the flavored liquids. Juul seems to be the most prevalent. It looks just like a computer cartridge.”
He said another popular e-cigarette brand is SMOK. With this brand, an individual can make their own content for vaping including marijuana and opiates. “The board is really concerned about that,” Watkins added.
About 24% of Cattaraugus County adults are smokers, far above the 14% statewide average for adults. The availability of untaxed cigarettes available on area Seneca territories is one reason for higher adult tobacco use.
“We feel this has become a public health crisis,” Watkins said. “Vaping nicotine is quite addictive.”
Local health officials had hopes the state legislature would pass a ban on flavored nicotine, Watkns said. “They did not act on it.”
As a result, Watkins said, “The board does not feel it can sit idly by. We need to be proactive. Flavoring the product has become so prevalent, we’re not sure what’s in these e-cigarettes. They have not identified all the components that makes up e-cigarettes.”
The nicotine can come in different strengths in cartridges and refills, Watkins said. “The higher the nicotine content, the quicker an individual can become addicted.”
By prohibiting the use of flavored products, the board feels it would at least reduce the number of youths becoming addicted to nicotine, Watkins said.
“Why the FDA hasn’t taken control and regulated e-cigarettes is a big question to us,” the public health director said. “We’re hoping they step up and control e-cigarettes like they have other tobacco products.”
Watkins said he wasn’t aware of any timetable for the county legislature to take up the flavored nicotine ban. He said it would be nice to have in effect for the start of school in September. That seems unlikely because county lawmakers only have one meeting this month and in August.
It was not on the list of prefiled resolutions that legislative committees will consider next Wednesday.
“We don’t want to wait until it’s too late” to prevent a generation of young nicotine addicts, Watkins said.
Tobacco companies say they designed the e-cigarettes to help wean adults off tobacco products by reducing the amount of nicotine over time. “Now kids are getting hooked on nicotine,” Watkins said.
One question Board of Health members had was how kids are getting these e-cigarettes and nicotine refills. The age to purchase tobacco products in New York is now 21.
“Many purchase them online,” Watkins said. “I don’t know how we could restrict online sale of nicotine.”
Another avenue are convenience stores where they are widely sold — sometimes to those under age 21. Watkins suggested the Health Department find ways to reduce those sales, such as the enforcement checks they do for tobacco sales to minors now.
“I’m hoping we can cut it off,” Watkins said.