The Alabama Department of Public Health confirmed the first vaping-related death in the state on Wednesday, Oct. 2, bringing the total number of deaths nationwide to 18 and reported illnesses to more than 1,000, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As the numbers grow, so does the mounting pressure for stricter regulations on vaping. Many states such as Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, Washington and New York have placed a temporary ban on selling flavored vaping liquids while Massachusetts banned all vaping products for four months.
The Trump administration announced on Wednesday, Sept. 11, its plans to regulate vaping products, which could include a banning of all non-tobacco flavored liquids.
On Friday, Sept. 27, the CDC released a statement saying, while no single cause has been linked to all cases, it believed vaping products containing Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — are to blame for most of the illnesses.
“Most of the people (77%) in this outbreak reported using THC-containing products, or both THC-containing products and nicotine-containing products,” the CDC stated.
The statement made by the CDC helped to legitimize suspicions many people already had — that these illnesses were caused by illicit products bought from a “black market.”
However, the statement may do little to slow down the movement to ban vaping due to its increased use among children and teens. One out of every four high school students use e-cigarettes, according to the CDC.
“The only way you can slow down kids with vaping — you’re going to have to do away with Juul and only sell vaping products in specialty vape stores,” James Pankey, owner of The Vape Shop in Albertville, said.
Juul is a vaping company that manufactures a small device for vaping single-use “pods” which contain vaping liquid.
Pankey and his friend Gordon Tinsley, who owns several shops and manufactures his own vaping liquids, don’t sell Juul products in their stores. They sell open tank systems, which are larger and more expensive than Juul and gives the user more customization options regarding nicotine levels and flavor.
“It’s not economically feasible for most teenagers to come into a vape shop and buy an open system because they’re going to cost $75-150 or more,” Tinsley said.
On top of that, a person must be at least 19 years old to purchase any tobacco product, vaping or otherwise, in Alabama.
“We wholeheartedly agree that youths should not have [vaping products],” Tinsley said. “We don’t sell to youths. We are very vigilant at checking IDs.”
Other stores, such as convenience stores where Juul devices are regularly sold, are less concerned with checking for identification and age, Tinsley said.
Both vape shop owners believe a general banning of flavors or vaping will do a lot more harm than good and won’t reduce teen use.
“We don’t have a vape shop issue, we don’t have an open system issue — we have a Juul issue,” Tinsley said.
Juul pods come in a variety of flavors but with only two options for the amount of nicotine — approximately 23 milligrams per millimeter and 40 milligrams per milliliter with no zero-nicotine option. That amount is higher than 3 milligrams per milliliter, which both Pankey and Tinsley said is their most common seller.
They’ve both experienced a lull in business since reports of the lung illnesses, as much as 40-50%, Tinsley said.
“This is our livelihood,” he said.
Combined, Tinsley and Pankey employee 20 people in their shops. Pankey sells close to 200 different flavors of vaping liquid, which he said is typical of most shops.
“Nobody wants a tobacco flavor anymore,” Pankey said. “If you’re going to quit smoking or chewing tobacco — they want a strawberry, vanilla custard, tropical punch, they want something besides a tobacco flavor.”
Close to 97% of his business is from selling flavored liquids, Tinsley said. If the federal government was to issue a ban, it could adversely affect more than 8,000 vape shops across the U.S., according to the American Vaping Association.
“It would bankrupt everybody in the state of Alabama that owns a vape shop,” Pankey said. “If they ban flavors, if they ban vaping, the government just murdered a lot of people because they’ll go back to smoking. There’s enough people that vape in the U.S. to lose an election. You take their flavors away, you ban vaping and make them go back to smoking — something they don’t want to do — well, what are you going to do?”
A conservative coalition led by the Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Thursday, Oct. 3, urging him not to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
“We urge you to preserve access to life-saving alternatives to cigarettes for the millions of adults who rely on electronic cigarettes and vapor products to quit smoking in the United States,” the letter stated. “… More than 100,000 jobs and the lives of 34 million adult smokers are on the line.”