Maryland vape shop owners, much like their counterparts across the country, are distressed. They’ve seen the popularity of their products decline significantly this year. Their sales have fallen as much as a fourth to a half in the last six months alone.
The “why” of this isn’t hard to discern: Once regarded as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and perhaps even a way to quit them, e-cigarettes have been linked to a teen nicotine epidemic and to fatal respiratory ailments. As of Nov. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified more than 2,000 cases of vaping-related lung illness, including 39 deaths in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
What particularly irks legal vaping suppliers, of course, is that what seems to be making users sick isn’t from their shelves but involves the use of illicit refill cartridges containing cannabis-derived THC with vitamin E acetate. So far, the CDC reports, samples taken from patients show they were more likely to have used cartridges with THC (82%) than nicotine (62%). These refills were most likely purchased online. Given that, it’s understandable that store owners selling government-certified products feel their business has been treated unfairly.
But the problem is really bigger than cheap, black market cartridges containing marijuana derivatives. It’s the failure to fully examine the potential hazards of vaping in the first place.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not initially regulate e-cigarettes as the agency has tobacco products. And even now, it’s not clear what rules the FDA will impose as manufacturers face a May deadline to justify their products. Clearly, the government failed to appreciate the popularity of e-cigarettes with teens. The small, sleek, battery-operated devices heat liquid or “vape juice” into an aerosol. That makes them not only easier to use than cigarettes but easier to hide, especially given there is no tell-tale smell of smoke.
The fact that companies like Juul Labs made refills in kid-friendly flavors like chocolate, cherry and strawberry deserves the scrutiny it is now getting. Maryland is one of many states now considering bans on such flavors.
Even President Donald Trump has gotten into the act. As recently as Monday, he posted a message on Twitter telling his followers that he continues to scrutinize vaping and its impact on “children’s health & safety.”
Vaping companies and their sellers may feel persecuted right now, but it’s also a classic “look before you leap” situation. The $11.5 billion industry took off before anyone appreciated the consequences. Now, companies are having second thoughts.
Juul recently halted production of its popular mint flavor. Walmart and Walgreens have announced they will stop selling e-cigarette products. And some jurisdictions are moving to ban them altogether. They don’t want to be associated with a serious health epidemic or for hooking young people on nicotine as e-cigarette popularity rises at the high school level.
Still, the rush to judgment might benefit from a bit more research. For example, has vaping helped adults quit smoking? There’s simply no question that the adult smoking rate in the United States has fallen and that vaping seems to appeal to those trying to quit in a way that nicotine patches and gum do not. That’s not something to be taken lightly.
If smoking is the bigger health threat (and that’s the scientific consensus given the variety of cancer-causing substances found in tobacco smoke), then there should probably still be a place for vaping and its 11 million-plus users. So that means the challenge is to regulate the worst effects (getting kids hooked in nicotine or a pneumonia-like lung disease) and preserve the possible beneficial impact of getting 35 million adults off cigarettes and other forms of tobacco.
What’s needed, frankly, is more reliable and independent research that isn’t funded by the tobacco or vaping industries to clarify the health risks and recommend the regulatory path forward. In other words, a robust and properly funded regulatory agency, an anathema to the Trump administration, needs to do what should have been done 15 years ago when vaping emerged on the market.
In the meantime, the risks are too great to ignore. Taking flavored refills off the market seems the least that can be done — regardless of the impact on mom-and-pop shop owners.