Over the past few years, a quiet threat has pervaded Florida communities and flooded our shores with the goal of targeting our children with potentially deadly products. As a local leader who has served on the Pasco County School Board and the boards of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the Pasco Education Foundation and the Red Cross, I am deeply concerned about the flood of illegal, disposable, candy-flavored vapes that Chinese manufacturers are marketing to our youth. These vapes are illegal, yet they are found in every community. The predatory companies produce these products in China with unknown ingredients and smuggle them into our country to hook our children.
With Washington’s failure to enforce already weak regulations, it’s now Florida’s problem to solve. According to recent data, an estimated $363 million worth of these illicit disposable vapes is expected to be sold in our state this year alone. This staggering figure not only exceeds the national average by 20%, but also represents up to 58% of Florida’s total vape product sales. That’s right, the illegal products are the market leaders.
Unfortunately, while we thought we had made some progress in addressing teen vaping, these illegal, disposable vapes continue to find their way into our schools, classrooms and locker rooms hidden in backpacks. Some are manufactured to look like highlighters and school supplies to trick teachers and evade detection. They are not only threatening our children’s health, they are also distracting teachers and administrators who spend countless hours policing this new dangerous product on school grounds instead of educating our kids.
The scope of this problem is vast and deeply troubling, as highlighted by the latest National Youth Tobacco Survey, which revealed that the most popular vaping products among middle school and high school students are the ones that are already illegal. Brands like Elf Bar and Esco Bar offer flavors such as “rainbow candy” and “blue cotton candy,” which, combined with packaging and designs featuring cartoon characters and toys, make it clear that these products are targeting children.
This summer, the FDA issued warnings to vape shops based in Florida, emphasizing the consequences of continuing to sell these dangerous products. But with hundreds of millions in profits to be made in this illicit vape market, unscrupulous businesses aren’t going to be frightened by a few strongly worded letters. However, the responsibility to combat this crisis should not rest solely on businesses, especially considering the vast number of products on the market, which makes it challenging for retailers, both small and large, to discern legal from illegal items.
What is most alarming is the potential presence of lethal substances like fentanyl in these unregulated products. Given that fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, and considering Florida’s staggering number of heroin-related overdose hospitalizations, the risk these products pose cannot be overstated. The reports of teenagers in various states accidentally overdosing on fentanyl-laced e-cigarettes are horrifying, and the growing concern among parents in our district and throughout the state is palpable. Some are even contemplating homeschooling as a measure to protect their children from these dangerous products.
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In the face of this crisis, it’s heartening to see proactive steps being taken, such as the introduction of crucial legislation in the Florida Legislature. This legislation aims to mandate that vape manufacturers register with the state, verify compliance with federal and state laws and face penalties for noncompliance. The passage of SB 1006/HB 1007 is essential, as it holds the potential to significantly mitigate the risk posed by these products, especially until stringent actions are taken against the manufacturers, particularly those based in China.
As community leaders, parents and concerned citizens, we must adopt an all-hands-on-deck approach to safeguard our youngest and most vulnerable population from these illegal products. The fight against illegal, disposable vapes from China requires a united front, combining legislative action, educational initiatives and community engagement to protect the future of our youth in Florida.
Kathryn Starkey is Pasco County commissioner for District 3.