From vapers to shop owners, last Wednesday morning was fraught with confusion and uncertainty. Social media heralded flavor cartridge doom in Michigan as store owners and customers alike scrambled to glean information from the latest headlines. Some customers even made runs on the vape shops to stockpile flavored vapes for the next six months.
“It was the first thing I saw in the morning on Facebook, and I called the Governor’s Office within 10 minutes of reading it,” vaper Calandra Jones said.
“I told them I was a smoker of seven years. Vaping is what allowed me to quit,” Jones said. “I quit within two weeks. I know I would've never been able to quit ‘cold turkey’ without it.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called a public health emergency last week and issued a ban on flavored e-cigarettes to take effect in a few weeks. Once effective, vape shops have a 30-day “sell-through” period to comply before no flavored e-cigarette can be sold in Michigan in retail stores and online. The temporary ban would last six months, but it could be renewed. Michigan is the first state in the nation to impose a ban on flavored vape.
“As governor, my number one priority is keeping our kids safe,” Whitmer said in a statement. “And right now, companies selling vaping products are using candy flavors to hook children on nicotine and misleading claims to promote the belief that these products are safe. That ends today.”
But the move spurs debate on how to balance protecting a new generation from nicotine addiction, with the potential e-cigarettes have as harm reducers, compared to much more deadly tobacco cigarettes.
Whitmer’s public health emergency comes amid a rash of deaths and lung ailments and a new call from prominent politicians such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for a national ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
The state is investigating six cases of vaping-related illnesses in Michigan, according to a statement released on Aug. 27.
“The severity of illness people are experiencing is alarming, and we want Michiganders to be aware using e-cigarettes and vaping can be dangerous,” said Sarah Lyon-Callo, a state epidemiologist at the Health and Human Services Department. “E-cigarettes/vaping products can contain harmful chemicals that can result in damage to a user’s lungs, heart or other body systems.”
State officials have yet to identify a specific brand or device or e-liquid responsible. As of Aug. 23, there were 203 possible cases of severe respiratory disease associated with e-cigarette use reported in 23 states.
Protecting kids while helping adult smokers
State bureaucrats and most public health advocates dismiss any positive aspects of e-cigarettes, especially flavored e-cigarettes, for adults, but their sentiment is not universal.
“I think this is a pretty drastic measure that the governor has taken,” said Ken Warner, a researcher and public health professor at the University of Michigan. “For adult smokers, it’s cutting off access to a more effective way to quit smoking than what the government has authorized for them.”
Warner, who was a founder of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, recently completed research that showed e-cigarettes’ potential for harm reduction. Clinical trials in the United Kingdom also show nearly twice as many people quit with e-cigarettes than other nicotine replacement therapies.
“It’s the single most used form of quitting,” Warner said. “Not only are they the most popular, they appear to be more effective than the FDA-approved products.”
“Those who acknowledge both sides think we need to keep them from children while helping adults have access to them.”
Though vaping has harmful substances, toxic chemicals exist in tobacco cigarettes at 10 to 400 times the level, he said.
Warner also has doubts that the recent vaping health cases are linked to the nicotine in e-cigarettes. He said the cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have mostly involve inhalation of oils, THC and synthetic THC.
“Vaping has been around 10 years now. Why haven’t we seen it in the past decade?” he inquired.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators found a link to the same chemical in people sickened by THC vapes recently in different parts of the country last week. The shared substance is an oil called vitamin E acetate, which is commonly used in skin care products.
The research comes from the New York State Department of Health, which analyzed vaping products of hospitalized patients in the state. The agency said many of the products that tested positive for vitamin E acetate are suspected counterfeits of recreational cannabis vape products.
Michigan’s ban will include only nicotine vaping products, not flavored THC and CBD vape cartridges, which will remain legal under state law, according to Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s press secretary.
The ban is designed to protect children from getting sucked into the vaping habit with enticing flavors such as bubble-gum, cherry and watermelon. Some advertisements included cotton candy and unicorns, which the state argues are marketed towards children. A federal report also showed vape manufacturer Juul marketed to schools.
According to a 2017 FDA study, 2.1 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes or vaping equipment. Meanwhile, 1.4 million used tobacco cigarettes. The FDA reports e-cigarette use is up 78 percent among high school students in 2018 from the year before.
“In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosive increase in the number of Michigan kids exposed to vaping products,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for the State of Michigan and chief deputy director for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “This is a public health crisis. These products can contain harmful chemicals that put our kids’ health at risk.”
Adults like fruit and menthol flavors
The problem with a flavor ban for Warner is that the same flavors that teenagers like are also craved by adults, who also like alcohol flavors that may seem childish to the temperance league. Banning those flavors means fewer people switching from cigarettes, he said.
“Surveys show fruit flavors are the most favored flavors for adult smokers, as they are for kids. I don’t doubt that kids like them, but adults like them, too,” Warner said. Vaper Tyler Pratt, 28, gets a new flavor every time he visits the vape shop. A cigarette smoker since the age of 16, Pratt successfully used vapes to quit smoking cigarettes for the past three years.
“I hope that doesn’t actually go through because I would have to quit ‘cold turkey’ or go back to smoking cigarettes,” Pratt said, dragging a vape mod from his front porch on the west side of Lansing.
Another reason to smoke vapes is that it’s much cheaper than cigarettes, Pratt added. He spends $30 a month on vape juice and coils.
An additional drawback of an outright flavor ban is that it prohibits menthol as well as fruity flavors, and 40 percent of tobacco smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes, which have a crisp minty flavor.
Menthol cigarettes are especially popular among black smokers. Nine out of 10 African-American smokers prefer menthol, according to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit tobacco control advocacy group.
In a 2016 landmark case against Big Tobacco, Evans vs. Lorillard Tobacco Co., found the nicotine baron was guilty of targeting African-American youth in poor neighborhoods by handing out free menthol cigarettes. Menthol compounds nicotine addiction by being an addictive substance as well.
“Big tobacco targeted minority groups with free menthol to get minorities hooked,” said Carey Lee, the owner of A Clean Cigarette, a chain of 20 vape shops based in Saginaw. “I fear with this flavor ban on menthol, a lot of minority people will be forced to go back to smoking cigarettes.”
The governor “thinks she is doing good, but she doesn’t understand,” Lee said. “She will literally damage the lungs of people because they will go back to tobacco.”
A Clean Cigarette employs 54 people full time statewide and has two shops in Lansing with others nearby in Charlotte and Owosso. Lee said the company focuses on getting people off the “death sentence” of combustible cigarettes by helping them transition to e-cigarettes.
The company assists smokers with a plan to reduce nicotine intake to zero through e-cigarette use and doesn’t sell to nonsmokers. Its Larch Street location features a ceiling full of cigarette packs signed by smokers promising to make it their last pack before quitting regular cigarettes.
“If I lose this product, I will lose my job and my health insurance and go back to normal cigarettes,” warned John Whaley, the manager of the Larch Street store. “If you think doing that to 5,000 people in this industry isn’t devastating, it is.”
As of Tuesday, 15,000 signed a change.org petition to prevent the ban. A march on Lansing for e-cigarette flavors is planned on Sept. 27 to protest the ban with 100 people pledging to go.
The morning the proposed ban was announced, customers made a run on Whaley’s store.
“People were panicking. Two people came in asking for all the bricks we had. I would only sell them two each,” Whaley said. “I found out two people came in bought over $800 worth of product apiece. They had cleaned out our other store before us.”
The most sought-after flavor from the run? menthol.
Raise the age to 21 like liberal Ohio
Warner said a much more effective approach to blocking access to e-cigarettes for children would be increasing the age both for smoking and e-cigarettes to 21 — a move that 18 states, from California and Illinois to Ohio and Texas — have already done. With the age raised to 21, senior high school students wouldn’t have the opportunity to purchase them and give them to younger classmates.
Warner also supports banning e-cigarette sales in stores where teenagers are allowed to shop such as corner convenience stores and gas stations. Adults could then purchase them in vape shops where one must be 21 to enter.
From Quality Dairy corner stores to head shops, most Lansing convenience stores with tobacco products also sell e-liquid or vape juice for e-cigarettes. In greater Lansing, there are more than 20 dedicated vape shops and lounges for adults.
Whitmer only took office in January but Michigan had previously been an extreme outlier in protecting children from the harms of vaping. It was only this spring that the Legislature banned their sale to minors, becoming almost the last state to do so. Now only Pennsylvania has no age restrictions. Whitmer signed that under-18 ban into effect, but the state law is moot — the FDA banned the sale to minors nationwide in 2016.
Strangely for a politician positioning herself as a public health advocate, Whitmer accepted $7,150 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry in 2018, according to followthemoney.org, a campaign finance tracking website. Flavored tobacco, such as cherry Swisher Sweets cigars are not affected by her “public health emergency.”
Nationally, San Francisco made history when it became the first city in the U.S. to ban all vaping and electronic cigarette products in June. However, it doesn’t go into effect until 2020.
Vaping has also drawn the ire of the U.S. surgeon general, who released a detailed advisory report on e-cigarettes risk in 2018, labeling them an epidemic. According to the report, nicotine use in any form can seriously affect a young persons brain.
“These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning,” the report said.
The report claimed e-cigarette devices like Juul, which resemble USB flash drives, have extremely high levels of nicotine due to their nicotine salts, a form of nicotine that provides less irritation to airways.
“A typical Juul cartridge, or ‘pod,’ contains about as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes,” the report said. “This is of particular concern for young people because it could make it easier for them to initiate the use of nicotine through these products and also could make it easier to progress to regular e-cigarette use and nicotine dependence.”
Essential oils misused for vape juice
On the manufacturing side, LorAnn Oils of Lansing is begrudgingly caught in the middle of people using its supplies for do-it-yourself vape juice. Its products appear in an array of DIY vape guides and vape forums online. The company manufactures essential oils that are intended for use flavoring candies, ice cream and baked goods — not e-cigarettes.
Vape marketing company Oklahoma City Vape Shop Marketing has commandeered LorAnn Oils’ products and tells home-vape enthusiasts how to use the essential oils to make vape juice. The Oklahoma company categorizes LorAnn Oils flavors with color codes for home brewing: red is unsafe, green is safe and yellow is vape “at your own risk,” based on amateur testing and data from ingredient lists.
“Unfortunately, the Amazon buyers of the world are using our flavors for their own concoctions,” LorAnn Oils CEO John Grettenberger Jr. said. “It is an area we are not comfortable selling into. These are all food safe ingredients for ingestion only. Vaping changes that.”
The company’s website has a section strongly advising against using its flavors in e-cigarettes: “LorAnn Oils does not advertise or promote its flavors for use in e-cigarettes. LorAnn has not tested its flavors for any purpose other than their use as an ingredient to be used in the preparation of foods to be consumed such as candy, cakes, cookies, and ice cream.”
Grettenberger added he is indifferent to the proposed ban until more testing is complete on the actual safety or danger of flavored e-cigarettes.
Meanwhile, vaper Calandra Jones said state lines won’t keep her from getting the blueberry and raspberry flavors she craves.
“I have one flavor that I like to smoke just how I smoked one flavor of cigarette. There is no ban that will stop me from smoking it. If I have to drive to Illinois or Ohio to get my flavor, I will.”
Jones doesn’t agree with the governor’s position that flavored vapes are geared solely toward minors.
“If getting rid of flavors advertised toward kids is what the policy is going to be, let’s get rid of candy named marijuana strains, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Cupcake Vodka and all that,” Jones said. “That’s what you have to do if that’s the angle you are going to take.”