Customers of Dallas vape shops looking for Mango Juul cartridges are finding empty shelves and heavy markups. Instead, they’re turning to Puff Bars, a nearly identical product that skirts the new rules by fusing the liquid-filled cartridge to the pen-sized stem.
Users consume the liquid — which can last from a few days to over a week, depending on how often it's inhaled — and then toss the entire device.
Growing attention to the problem of underage use of e-cigarettes has brought increased attention by regulators. But dithering by the Trump administration and patchwork FDA enforcement have left many in the industry scratching their heads.
“Everything is now disposable," said Eric Scott of Wizard’s Vapor Bar in Old East Dallas. "It's kind of silly.”
Juul stopped selling the flavors late last year, shortly after President Donald Trump promised to ban them at the urging of his wife and daughter. Researchers had linked the flavors — which included mango and creme brûlée — to a vaping epidemic among children.
But Trump backpedaled at the last minute. The Washington Post reported that Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, used internal polling to argue that the ban would cost him votes in battleground states. So when a memo came across his desk that would institute the ban, Trump refused to sign it.
Instead, the FDA came up with a compromise. It would begin "prioritizing enforcement" of flavored vaping products beginning February.
It turns out that vaping products are already breaking the rules. The FDA has required manufacturers to prove that their products are "appropriate for the protection of public health" since 2016, but so far, none have successfully done so. The agency has repeatedly fudged the deadline for compliance.
Proponents of the vaping products argue that they provide a healthier alternative to cigarettes. But Juul, on its way to a nearly $40 billion valuation, has introduced a whole generation of children to nicotine addiction. According to federal researchers, the devices are used by over 5 million kids.
Now, thanks to a "guidance" document released by the FDA on Jan. 2, there's a new deadline and a massive loophole: It excludes "completely self-contained, disposable products," like Puff Bars.
As a result, the announcement, initially covered as a ban by many national media outlets, is in fact having the opposite effect. "This policy basically provided a road map for the e-cig industry to continue using flavored products to addict kids," said Boot Bullwinkle, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Juul, headquartered in San Francisco and now partially owned by the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, popularized vaping by creating a tiny device that could deliver a heavy nicotine punch. It has said it manufactures its cartridges in the United States.
The origin of Puff Bars and other knockoffs are more difficult to trace. Imported from China, they're available for purchase from a variety of wholesalers online at prices as low as $7 each. Online commenters claim that their flavors are superior to other brands.
"The mango is very rich and mango-y and sweet. Tastes a lot more like a real mango, than the juul mango pod," wrote a Redditor named watchpod on a forum thread soliciting opinions about the brand from late last year.
"How can the FDA say juul is for kids when the Puff Bar is literally like candy," followed up dpb225.
At a Dallas vape shop — which will go unnamed, at the behest of its owner — Thomas Morman showed off the store's selection of dozens of flavors of Puff Bars arrayed prominently at eye-level above the counter. They were next to the store's dwindling selection of Juul flavors, some obtained from Canada.
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Morman said disposables are the newest "big thing" and Puff Bars are the most popular, thanks to their wide array of appealing flavors. There's a Blue Razz and even a Cafe Latte.
Late last year, the state raised the cigarette age to 21, and Morman said he occasionally has to turn people away who admit they're purchasing the products for their younger siblings or children.
"They're not trying to ban, currently, the prefilled disposables, just the pods," said Morman, who admitted he is a bit perplexed by the newest regulations.
"Which I think is interesting because they're very similar ... there's no difference."