As a nationwide ban of flavored vaping products looms, local vaping shop owners are concerned that such a sweeping measure will lead users to switch back to cigarettes.
"When you take away flavors, the likelihood that they’re going to go back to that combustible cigarette is a whole lot higher," says Monica Vondruska, the owner of Cignot, a vape shop in northwest Denver.
The sale of flavored vaping liquids will soon be banned across the country, according to the head of the Food and Drug Administration. During a September 25 congressional committee hearing, FDA commissioner Norman Sharpless told lawmakers the agency will issue guidelines in the next few weeks instructing stores to stop selling flavored vaping products. Both online and in-person sellers will have thirty days to stop marketing and selling flavored vaping products. The flavor ban may even include mint and menthol products, since those flavors "are very popular with children," according to Sharpless.
Non-compliance could result in financial penalties for stores. However the FDA ban will allow manufacturers to submit applications before May 2020 to get FDA approval for their products, which must be "appropriate for the protection of the public health," according to a blog post penned by Sharpless earlier this month.
Youth vaping rates are high, particularly in Colorado, and hundreds of people across the country are developing vaping-related illnesses, and, in at least eleven cases, dying from these illnesses. As of September 25, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has documented eight cases of vaping-related illness across the state. Although none of those individuals have died, six had been hospitalized at some point.
Vape shops in Denver say that bans would be extreme and that shops already make sure they aren't selling to underage individuals. "Since we are a retail vapor location, we are required by law to ID everyone who comes in the door," says Ryan Breault, who works at Vaper Jungle on East Colfax Avenue.
Like many involved in the vaping industry, Breault, a 27-year-old former Marine, used to smoke heavily. "My wife told me she was pregnant, and I didn't want my kids to grow up around that environment," Breault says, recalling the day he stopped smoking. "I quit on a blue razz lemonade flavor vape, and I have not touched a single cigarette since then."
Proponents argue that kids are attracted to such tasty-sounding flavors. In November 2018, e-cigarette giant JUUL, which is facing investigations from law enforcement offices across the nation, responded to these concerns by announcing that it would remove most flavored products from store locations to appease the FDA. The company still sells mint-, menthol- and tobacco-flavored products in stores, and other flavored JUUL products are available online.
Vaping proponents say that flavors are helpful in getting someone off cigarettes.
"The people that are coming in to convert to a less harmful product, they don’t want a tobacco flavor that is associated with the habit they’re trying to kick," says Vondruska. "I’m 35, and my favorite flavor is strawberry-cucumber-mint, so I know that with a flavor ban, my personal flavor that I’ve been vaping for three to four years now, it’s going away with that flavor ban."
Federal health officials haven't linked a specific product to the vaping-related illnesses. But according to Sharpless, about 70 percent of samples taken from the vapes in question are THC products and half of those THC products contain Vitamin E acetate, which is typically a skin topical but is used to increase the viscosity of vaping liquid.
"We don’t know if [Vitamin E acetate] causes anything or if it’s a marker for adulteration or a marker for a bad product," Sharpless said during the hearing.
Lawmakers started turning their attention to vape products before users became ill. In November 2018, then-governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing state agencies to move to limit the "use of tobacco products, vaping products and e-cigarettes by youth." In the spring, Representative Yadira Caraveo and Senator Rhonda Fields pushed unsuccessful legislation that would have heavily taxed vaping products, and Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette filed a bill in March that "gives e-cigarette manufactures one year to prove to the federal Food and Drug Administration that kid-friendly flavorings in e-cigarettes – such as 'gummy bear,' 'cotton candy,' 'tutti fruitti' and 'cookies ’n cream' – are used solely to help adults stop smoking cigarettes and do not lead to increased use among teens or cause any additional harm to users."
More recently, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that his office is investigating JUUL and its marketing in relation to youth. And Denver City Council is considering raising the tobacco-product purchasing age to 21 and requiring licensing for tobacco sellers. Other municipalities in Colorado, including Boulder, have banned the sale of flavored vaping products.
When asked if Governor Jared Polis is considering any sort of ban on vaping products, his office said to Westword in a statement, "The Governor is very concerned about this issue which is why he directed staff to look into what the state can do to address it. The Governor wants to make sure we can identify solutions that are driven by science and will create real, meaningful change."
Earlier this month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered a six-month ban on the sale of flavored vaping products. Not long after, New York ordered a three-month ban on flavored products, saying that shops can only sell menthol and tobacco-flavored products during that period. And this week, Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, announced a ban on the sale of all vaping products, including both nicotine and THC, for the next four months.
Local marijuana-industry officials blame the black market for faulty products.
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"Although investigations and data collection are ongoing, it appears that most, if not all, of the reported cannabis-related cases so far stem from products sourced from the unregulated criminal market," the Cannabis Trade Federation said in a statement.
But evidence indicates that at least some vapers who have gotten sick after consuming marijuana products did so in states with legal markets. The death that occurred in Oregon came after an individual consumed a legally purchased marijuana vaping product, and two of the eight people who have gotten sick in Colorado have reported only vaping marijuana products.
Vondruska says she's less concerned about her business than she is about former smokers who were able to quit by vaping flavored products.
"The question we should be asking if we take these flavors off the shelves is not whether or not I’m going to be in business," she explains. "It’s whether or not we’re going to be able to get that smoking rate down to zero."