UP IN VAPOR
The unregulated industry of e-cigs causes concern among health experts
By Amber Lennon 07/24/2014
At the age of 10, I became a self-elected member of the anti-smoking campaign in my house. Like so many smokers, my dad had attempted several rounds of quitting, only to fall in love once more with the seduction of smoke. The process sickened me. I wondered how a person could be so selfish. Didn’t he know that he was not only risking his own life, but also jeopardizing my right to have a father? There was only one thing to do — Operation Eliminate Tobacco. Package after package of loose tobacco was flushed down the toilet or sprinkled in the garden like an offering to the gods. Imagine my disappointment when I found my dad on the porch the next morning rolling another cigarette with an amused smirk on his face.
If there are any parents out there who have children with similar sentiments, luckily there are more smoking-cessation methods available today, including nicotine patches and gum and, most recently, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, which have been reported by many smokers to be the answer to their lifelong nicotine addiction. The devices vary in appearance, but all consist of a metallic cartridge, a battery and a heating element. The e-cigarette heats up a liquid called “juice,” which contains nicotine (although some are nicotine-free), propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorings and other possible additives. This produces an aerosol mist or vapor, which the user inhales or “vapes.”
Photo by: Scott Alan Mount
Vapor Forrest in Ventura, like other e-cigarette/e-liquid stores in the area,
offer consumers a variety of flavors to try before purchase.
You may have seen people “vaping” in bars and restaurants, and marveled at what you assumed was their blatant disregard for smoking laws. But as of now, e-cigarettes are not covered under federal smoking regulations because they do not produce smoke, nor do they contain tobacco. In fact, e-cigarette proponents claim that vaping is anti-tobacco. The exhaled vapor smells more like a fruity scratch-and-sniff sticker than the familiar acrid smoke of conventional cigarettes, and there are only a handful of ingredients in e-cigarettes, compared with some 300 chemical ingredients found in cigarettes, many of which are known carcinogens.
Health experts, however, are not convinced that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. Ventura County Public Health Officer and Medical Director . Robert Levin, M.D., warns that contrary to popular belief, e-cigarettes also contain carcinogenic ingredients and byproducts.
“We know that many e-cigarettes, depending on the brand, contain a lot of other substances, including ethylene glycol; heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, chromium; silica nanoparticles; volatile organic compounds,” he said. “If any of these are raising a jingle in your memory, it’s because some of them, if not all of them, have been associated with cancer development.”
These concerns are echoed throughout the medical community, and with only five years of substantial e-cigarette consumer use, the health effects of long-term vaping are still unknown. In 2009, the FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis conducted laboratory evaluations of sample cartridges from two leading e-cig brands. In one sample, diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical found in antifreeze was detected, and other samples found carcinogens, including nitrosamines. Independent scientific research teams have produced similar findings, including a study used by the German Cancer Research Institute in its recommendation to regulate e-cigarettes based on the presence of formaldehyde.
Another controversial hot spot that would necessitate the FDA’s involvement is the fact that “e-juice,” the nicotine refill liquid, is currently manufactured without any standardized quality control regulations. Many vape stores manufacture their own line of juice in-house in addition to offering one of over 200 imported brands, mostly from China and Japan. Bottles of e-juice contain anywhere from 0-24milligrams of nicotine (doses increase by 6 milligram increments), and the labels are supposed to reflect those amounts. FDA testing of different sample bottles labeled with the same milligrams of nicotine, however, revealed significantly varying levels of nicotine. Potential nicotine overdose based on faulty manufacturing could result in nausea, headaches, vomiting, tremors, increased heart rate and other health hazards. And without quality regulation, it’s impossible to know what ingredients are contained in e-juice and where those ingredients were sourced.
It’s a bit like the Wild, Wild West of vaping, with sellers capitalizing financially on the unregulated nascent industry and users enjoying the liberty of vaping just about anywhere they please. But the pre-prohibition days may numbered in the U.S. The FDA recently extended its deadline to receive public commentary until Aug. 9, and once sufficient scientific evidence has been gathered, the FDA may expand its regulation of tobacco-related products to include e-cigarettes. Exactly what those regulations will entail is yet to be revealed, but the FDA might impose licensing fees to manufacture e-juice and to operate a vaping business, as well as relegating e-cig users to conventional smoking areas.
Many people who claim that e-cigarettes can be used as smoking-cessation devices cringe at the idea of having to vape in the same areas as smokers, arguing that being forced into traditional smoking environments could make it hard to kick the habit. Chinese manufacturers introduced e-cigarettes in 2003 as a smoking-cessation device, but studies conducted on the effectiveness of vaping on quitting smoking show little improvement. Twenty-year-old Ventura resident Zak Meister says vaping replaced his five-year cigarette habit.
“I started (vaping) in January of this year, and it only took a week or two to quit,” he said. “You have to be a hobbyist of sorts. There are a lot of parts to clean, a lot of maintenance. It almost becomes like trading cards, except people get together and trade flavors.”
It’s this type of youth appeal that has raised a red flag for vaping critics, who claim that offering vape flavors like cookies and cream, bubble gum and candy cane could attract the impressionable youth and create a gateway to regular cigarette addiction. Advertisements for e-cigarettes use all the tried-and-true recipes of selling — sexy, cool and fun with a dash of celebrity endorsements — and the number of middle and high-school students who have tried e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012. But at this early stage in the e-cigarette craze, it’s difficult to determine whether this typical teenage experimentation is the result of such advertising or if it will, in fact, lead to adult cigarette addiction. In an effort to curb that possibility, federal regulations could prevent e-cigarette advertisements from appearing on television and in printed media, and they could dictate product placement in non-vaping establishments like convenience stores.
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, or CASAA, has been closely tracking the progress of the FDA’s proposed regulation and states that the proposed jurisdiction will cripple e-cigarette merchants and negatively impact the consumer with a significant increase in vaping costs. If passed, the FDA’s hefty licensing fees will likely put small proprietors out of business, which would allow manufacturers with lots of capital to monopolize the market. Ironically, the biggest benefactors of the FDA’s regulations would be Big Tobacco. Two of the largest cigarette companies — Altria, makers of Marlboro; and Reynolds American, makers of Camel — announced their intentions to start producing their own e-cigarettes later this year.
It’s going to take some strategic maneuvering to navigate the next couple of years in the vape business, and Vaping Connoisseur owner Ryan Wilson says he’s preparing. The small vape establishment in Ventura opened its doors in April of this year and offers a boutique line of e-juice as well as Wilson’s own juice creations.
“I was thinking about the future when I opened this place,” he said. “So I make two of my own lines here, and I also carry three other lines from major distributors. I have radius agreements with those companies, and no other store will be able to sell those lines (in this area). So when those laws pass, and these companies see that I’ve been moving some product, I’ve already got a relationship with those companies.”
Surprisingly, Wilson agrees with the push to regulate the industry and trusts that those who are in the business to make a quick buck will be the ones who go under. The fact that anyone can manufacture juice with unknown ingredients concerns him, and Wilson says he guarantees that his products are made with quality, food-grade ingredients. He also stated that “having a little respect for the common public” by not vaping in places like theaters and restaurants, for example, would help improve the reputation of vaping. “I think bystanders are catching the (vapor) exhale, and some of that’s going to affect you in some way, no matter how little it is,” he explained. “I think a public ban is a good idea. It’s gonna hurt business for sure, but I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.”
To date, the only federal regulation on e-cigarettes prevents selling to minors. But major cities, including Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have already passed laws that prohibit vaping in all smoke-free environments, including bars, restaurants and theaters. So far, Camarillo is the only known incorporated city in Ventura County to regulate e-cigarettes by passing an emergency moratorium prohibiting the establishment of any new vaping businesses, and the city may also consider banning e-cigarettes in all smoke-free zones.
In a letter to the City Council of Camarillo, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network advocated e-cigarette regulation, stating:
“There is general agreement among scientists in the field that, in the short run, at least, e-cigarettes are almost certainly less harmful than combusted cigarettes. But there are still serious questions about the safety of inhaling the substances in some e-cigarette vapor. E-cigarettes have not been subject to thorough, independent testing, so users cannot be sure of what they are actually inhaling. Some studies have shown that some e-cigarettes can cause short-term lung changes and irritations and the long-term health effects . . . are unknown.”
The topic will be discussed at the Ventura City Council Meeting on Sept. 15, and the public is encouraged to voice their opinions. Council members will likely hear from e-cig supporters like Wilson, who is no longer a smoker, thanks to vaping. “Three days into (vaping), I knew I was never going to smoke another cigarette,” he said. “You start getting your taste buds back, and your energy levels, your sense of smell — things you didn’t realize you were missing as a smoker. I could never run when I was smoking cigarettes, and now I can run. I have endurance I never had before.”
Some people are likely to swear off vaping at the mere mention of formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds, without further investigation. These folks trust that the FDA has public health at heart and will regulate accordingly. Then there are those who note that the FDA approves foods and cosmetics with highly questionable ingredients all the time. Take soda, for example. In the last 10 years, scientific analysis of soda ingredients has revealed many cancer-causing ingredients, including aspartame and 4-methylimidazole (a trace impurity in the manufacturing of some caramel coloring), but soda-manufacturing companies are still a multibillion-dollar industry.
Ultimately it’s up to consumers to use their best judgment in weighing out pleasure vs. risk after gathering all the information and considering the possible agendas of those information sources. Whether vaping is a passing fad that will soon go up in smoke, or will one day be heralded as the best thing since the beer cozy, is yet to be seen. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly put it, “Life is an experiment.”