Dalton Armstrong took a long, deep drag on his e-cigarette and exhaled a cloud of white vapor the size of a small nimbostratus cloud.
Until about three months ago, the 22-year-old Kansas Citian had never used electronic cigarettes. But that was before he landed a job as a salesman at It’s a Dream, a vaping shop on Broadway near Westport Road.
There he sells exactly the kind of electronic cigarettes and nicotine-laced vaping liquids — in flavors that include strawberry, watermelon and pink bubble gum — that the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday finally decided it will regulate.
The FDA’s rules, which go into effect nationwide in 90 days, also include regulations on cigars, hookahs and pipe tobacco. The regulations are significant because they give the FDA broad powers related to a multibillion-dollar industry.
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It’s estimated that about 9 million adults use e-cigarettes in the United States. The new rules will require the makers of e-cigarettes, cigars and other products to register with the FDA as well as provide details regarding their products’ ingredients and manufacturing processes.
They also, after years of talk by the federal agency, ban the sale of the materials to those younger than 18.
Only problem: “It’s a little bit late,” Armstrong said. “It’s already 21.”
In Kansas City, and many area municipalities, he’s right. Where the FDA is now going with the ban on sales to minors, all but a few states have already gone, having in recent years restricted sales of vaping products to adults. Missouri in 2014 passed a law making it illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18. Kansas has a similar law.
Kansas City and Independence, Olathe, Lenexa, Prairie Village, Gladstone, Bonner Springs, Lansing and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., are even more strict. In an effort that began in October, each passed an ordinance restricting tobacco sales, as well as e-cigarettes, to customers 21 and older.
Those ordinances came from Tobacco21/KC, which is part of Healthy KC, a partnership of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City that is aimed at improving the health and well-being of area residents.
Under the FDA’s new rules, the agency can demand scientific data from manufacturers, inspect production methods and weigh in on marketing. Small shops that produce their own e-cigarette liquids also would be considered producers and accountable to the FDA.
E-cigarette supporters lambasted the new rules.
“Harm-reduction advocates have long warned that FDA ‘regulation’ of vapor products would resemble prohibition far more than reasonable regulation. Today, these warnings became reality,” Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said in an email to The Star.
“If the FDA’s rule is not changed by Congress or the courts, thousands of small businesses will close in two to three years. Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost and consumer choice will be annihilated. Absurdly, ex-smokers will face the prospect of having to purchase products that help them remain smoke-free on the black market.”
Debate has raged over the question of whether e-cigarettes act, as critics insist, as an addiction gateway to tar-laden traditional cigarettes or, as fans of e-cigarettes claim, a tool to help smokers wean themselves from tobacco.
“As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap,” said Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of health and human services when the new regulations were announced.
“All of this is creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction.”
In its literature, the National Institute on Drug Abuse refers to one study that found that students who have used e-cigarettes by the time they start ninth grade are more likely than others to start smoking traditional cigarettes within the next year.
Instead of using tobacco, e-cigarettes are battery-operated devices. They heat liquids that are sold containing either no nicotine or a concentration of nicotine from 3 percent to 36 percent. Instead of creating smoke, e-cigarettes create vapor.
In Kansas City, three smoke shops that feature e-cigarettes, KC Smokz, It’s a Dream, and 18+ Vape & Smoke Shop, are within about 200 feet of one another on Broadway, just north of Westport Road.
None sells to anyone younger than 21.
“Last week when I was working, I had four or five younger kids come in,” said Carrie Tracy, 30, an employee at 18+ Vape & Smoke. “They wanted to purchase some stuff. I asked for their IDs. They got pretty pissed when I said I couldn’t do it. They’re under 21. ‘You gotta go.’ ”
Adam Hoelscher, 30, the day manager at It’s a Dream, said he would be surprised to find that many shops sold to minors. The FDA’s new rules, he said, would mean little in Kansas City, which for months has been restricting sales to adults age 21 and older.
“Honestly, no one under 21 can even come into our shop,” he said.