“They’re targeting young kids and those kids think it’s harmless, but it’s really damaging the lungs of young people. When you have flavors like bubble gum, it’s not transparent about what it’s really doing to the body," Senator Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, told Colorado Public Radio toward the end of November. Fields told CPR that she'd be introducing a flavor-ban bill this upcoming legislative session.
But since then, Fields has spoken with vape shop owners, many of whom are vapers themselves, and says she doesn't intend to sponsor a bill that would ban flavors.
"A lot of folks that are adults like the different flavors," says Fields. "And, as an adult, even though I know it’s harmful to your lungs, people have a right to vape if they want to and to use flavors if they want to, even though we know the research shows that the cinnamon flavor, the vanilla, the butter, [does] strong harm to the white blood cells."
She says she could still take up a ban bill in the future.
"I had to prioritize what was most important in reference to what I wanted to do," says Fields, who will champion bills regarding school safety and early childhood development and providing workers' compensation for 911 operators as it relates to PTSD in 2020.
Her flavor-ban bill wouldn't have gone far with Republicans. "What a great incentive those flavors have been to get people off cigarettes and over to vaping," says Sage Naumann, a spokesperson for the Republican caucus in the Colorado Senate. "A blanket ban ignores that completely."
Naumann, a vaper himself, argues that politicians promoting a flavor ban are wrongly viewing it as a panacea to the youth vaping epidemic, for which Colorado is ground zero, and the vaping-related illnesses sweeping the nation.
"It’s not like once you turn 18 or 21, you all of a sudden lose a sweet tooth," Naumann says about a flavor ban aiming to reduce youth vaping. He also points to additives in black market and legal THC products, rather than licit nicotine products, as being linked to the mysterious illnesses popping up nationwide.
In early November, Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division announced a ban on vaping products that contain vitamin E acetate, the additive that has been linked to many of the recent vaping-related illnesses, in addition to any that have polyethylene glycol (PEG) and medium chain triglycerides (MCT) oil, which have also been linked to various health issues. The ban will take effect in January.
But the state has largely decided against regulating flavored vaping products. Governor Jared Polis has been on the fence about flavored nicotine vaping liquids, while governors in various other states have decided to ban flavored products entirely.
"Being number one in the country for teen vaping is not something to be proud of. Unfortunately, the bill that would have given Coloradans the opportunity to tackle this health issue on the 2019 ballot to reduce teen vaping and raised millions in funding for early childhood education and health care was blocked at the legislature this past session," Conor Cahill, a spokeperson for Polis, writes to Westword in an email. "The Governor wants to make sure that we identify solutions that are science-driven and create real change. All data-driven options are on the table, and that is what he has directed staff to look into. The Governor remains committed to tackling this growing problem and is looking at the ways we can address it."
Cahill is referring to a failed bill introduced toward the end of the 2019 legislative session that would have raised taxes on e-cigarette products by 62 percent. Fields jointly sponsored that bill with Yadira Caraveo, a Democratic representative from Adams County.
Caraveo predicts that the failed tax increase will launch a signature-gathering campaign by citizens to place it on a future ballot.
There are other options to help keep kids away from nicotine, Caraveo adds, like passing legislation to require state licensing of tobacco shops or raising the minimum purchasing age to 21. Caraveo would also like to see a flavor-ban bill, though she's not ready to sponsor one herself.
"As a pediatrician, I think that a flavor ban is the right thing to do. Those flavors are clearly to target kids and get another generation addicted to nicotine," she explains.
Fields says she hasn't spoken with Polis about a flavor-ban bill, but argues that their respective positions don't amount to disinterest.
"It doesn’t mean that he’s not interested or I’m not interested, but sometimes there’s bigger fish to fry," she says.