President Trump’s proposed ban of electronic cigarettes with anything but a tobacco flavor could kill a big part of the vape store business, but it may have a limited effect on curbing use by young people who can already flavor their own cartridges with readily available and attractive dessert tastes, industry experts say.
Trump’s move came after new data showed teen vaping increased even as the availability of more kid-friendly flavors decreased. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb last year proposed restricting flavored e-liquids to vape stores that are age-restricted, but Trump’s move would go much further.
The announcement came amid an outcry over the mounting death toll and hundreds of serious lung illnesses linked to vaping. Nearly all of the now-public cases involved young men who vaped both nicotine and THC oil.
On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes in the state through an emergency executive action.
Pick up a joint instead: Vaping illnesses highlight flawed marijuana regulations
Gottlieb told USA TODAY on Thursday that the deaths and illnesses and teen vaping concerns have been “conflated” and calls them “separate actions and separate public health concerns.” On CNBC Monday, Gottlieb called for a “federal reckoning” and regulation of cannabis because of its link to most of the reported lung illnesses and deaths.
The proposed flavored vape ban, he said, is an “eminently reasonable step to take” given that the logical alternative would have been banning all e-cigarettes because of the rising use by teens. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said this week that new data show about a quarter of high school teens vaped in the past 30 days, up from 20% from the year before.
As for whether companies could still sell separate flavors, Gottlieb said, “if they‘re just selling a flavor, I think they might be able to.”
The FDA declined to comment, saying only that “the FDA plans to share more on the specific details of the plan and its implementation in the coming weeks,” spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo said.
Kyle Doerfler, owner of Liquid Nicotine Wholesalers in Phoenix, says he has been discussing the proposed ban with FDA officials in recent weeks and plans to meet with them in the next month or so. He says the focus is on what’s sold in stores, and the agency understands the products can be separated into the flavorings and nicotine liquid, which is widely available but seldom used alone.
Doerfler started his company in 2012 as a wholesale business selling flavored e-liquids with nicotine, as well as separate flavorings and unflavored e-liquid. He now sells flavors and e-liquids without nicotine as well and has started selling to individuals using an age verification system in addition to the wholesales sales.
“(The FDA’s) stance is they’re not regulating the manufacturing sector or the ingredients,” Doerfler said. “That’s not being looked at right now, but that can change at any time.”
The FDA regulates nicotine, but industry officials say they don’t believe it has authority over flavorings that can be added separately. Liquid Nicotine Wholesalers will sell customers banana split or apple pie flavoring they can vape with unflavored nicotine or alone if they just want a good taste and the feeling of smoking after years of cigarettes, Doerfler said.
The flavors can be tasted more easily the less nicotine the liquid has, says Jennifer Piera, co-owner of the Vaporfi vape stores in Baltimore and Alexandria, Virginia. Many customers simply continue vaping because they like the taste and it’s hard to stop even when the nicotine is at a very low level.
“The habit is a big part of why people smoke,” said Piera, who hasn’t smoked and has vaped only in the 15 months since she opened her stores. “It’s something to play with in my hands.”
While vape industry officials warned it would kill a large and important industry that helps people quit the more dangerous habit of smoking, many public health advocates heralded Trump’s announcement.
“For too long, e-cigarette companies have been given the ability to target our nation’s children with candy-flavored, nicotine-loaded products that are addicting a new generation and threatening decades of progress in reducing youth tobacco use,” Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson said.
Vaping lung illness: What we know about the recent spate of cases and deaths
Young people now use a variety of store-bought, homemade or modified devices to vape, and they inhale substances including dealer-bought THC oil that has been linked to most of the recent publicized hospitalizations. That makes industry officials and vaping proponents skeptical the ban will have much effect.
“Are we not to learn anything from the current THC hash oil acute lung illness situation?” asked Jeff Stier, a senior fellow and tobacco harm reduction advocate at the free market Consumer Choice Center. “We don’t want consumers adding stuff to their e-cigs. And we don’t want more sophisticated black-market folks doing it.”
Doerfler says the anti-vaping rhetoric is “going crazy.”
“We went from being heroes to villains in the last couple years,” Doerfler said. “I used to have pride in the fact I owned an e-cigarette company.”
If you or family members are struggling with issues mentioned in this story and you would like to connect with others online, join USA TODAY’s “I Survived It” Facebook support group.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vaping illness: Trump ban on vape flavors may have little effect