Suffolk County crackdown targets vape, tobacco stores illegally selling to minors

HAUPPAUGE, Long Island (WABC) -- Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday announced the results of a recent undercover sting operation targeting store owners who illegally sell vape products to minors.

The Centers for Disease Control recently found flavorings in tobacco products may make them more appealing to young people, and addiction experts say education is the key to make teens aware of the potential dangers.

"You have the potential for another public health disaster on your hands," addiction treatment specialist Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds said.

The investigation took place at 101 tobacco stores and vape shops across Suffolk County, and Bellone said 21 establishments broke the law in selling to minors.

WATCH Tuesday's full news conference by Suffolk County officials

A look at the marketing reveals names like "Bazooka," cartridges designed to look like flash drives, and vapes displayed next to a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal.

"In some cases, the packaging looks like juice boxes, or candy and cookies," Suffolk County police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.

Businesses in the sting were cited for offenses with maximum fines of $1,500, but Bellone wants to increase penalties for repeat offenders -- especially because of the marketing to teens.

A recent school-based survey showed nearly one in 11 U.S. students have used marijuana in electronic cigarettes, heightening health concerns about the new popularity of vaping among teens.

E-cigarettes typically contain nicotine, but many of the battery-powered devices can vaporize other substances, including marijuana. Results published Monday mean 2.1 million middle and high school students have used them to get high.

Vaping is generally considered less dangerous than smoking, because burning tobacco or marijuana generates chemicals that are harmful to lungs. But there is little research on e-cigarettes' long-term effects, including whether they help smokers quit.

The rise in teenagers using e-cigarettes has alarmed health officials who worry kids will get addicted to nicotine, a stimulant, and be more likely to try cigarettes. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration gave the five largest e-cigarette makers 60 days to produce plans to stop underage use of their products.

Nearly 9 percent of students surveyed in 2016 said they used an e-cigarette device with marijuana, according to Monday's report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. That included one-third of those who ever used e-cigarettes.

The number is worrying "because cannabis use among youth can adversely affect learning and memory and may impair later academic achievement and education," said lead researcher Katrina Trivers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students who said they lived with a tobacco user were more likely than others to report vaping marijuana.

It's unclear whether marijuana vaping is increasing among teens or holding steady. The devices have grown into a multi-billion industry, but they are relatively new.

In states where marijuana is legal, shoppers can buy cartridges of liquid containing THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets people high, that work with a number of devices. Juul, by far the most popular e-cigarette device, does not offer marijuana pods, but users can re-fill cartridges with cannabis oil.

It was the first time a question about marijuana vaping was asked on this particular survey, which uses a nationally representative sample of students in public and private schools. More than 20,000 students took the survey in 2016.

A different survey from the University of Michigan in December found similar results when it asked for the first time about marijuana vaping. In that study, 8 percent of 10th graders said they vaped marijuana in the past year.

"The health risks of vaping reside not only in the vaping devices, but in the social environment that comes with it," said University of Michigan researcher Richard Miech. Kids who vape are more likely to become known as drug users and make friends with drug users, he said, adding that "hanging out with drug users is a substantial risk factor for future drug use."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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