THE LATEST ON THE CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) OUTBREAK
Vaping Panic Hits Area Businesses
Last week, the Pennsylvania Health Department reported that one person in the state had died from lung injuries associated with vaping.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine advised: “I strongly urge everyone who is vaping illegally-bought products, in particular those with THC, to stop.”
The department stated its intent to continue to investigate dozens of other suspected or confirmed cases.
Nevertheless, within the information regarding the investigation and the warning that the agency “recommends that people do not vape,” another commonly ignored fact is also noted.
It turns out, while headlines and some officials have demonized the e-cigarette and nicotine-containing vaporizer industry, the most recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that THC products, particularly illicit ones, are more likely to blame for the outbreak.
The majority of the people (77%) in this outbreak reported using THC-containing products, or both THC-containing products and nicotine-containing products, according to a report published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
CDC information updated on October 11 notes that of the 1,299 lung injury cases reportedly associated with vaping, most of the patients report a history of using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing products obtained off the street or from other informal sources such as friends or illicit dealers.
According to Ben Osterling, manager of Smoke4Less in Clarion and co-owner and Vice President of Kingdom Vapor Wholesale in Butler, the effects on small businesses are widespread.
“We’re down about 30 percent at Smoke4Less, though we haven’t felt the effect as much as some places. Here we have a really loyal customer base. We’ve been selling this stuff for a long time,” Osterling told exploreClarion.com.
“In our wholesale business, which is separate, we’re down 50 percent, doing half of what we were doing before September 11 when they announced the flavor bans and the news came out. A lot of other shops and wholesalers are reporting about the same, and multiple shops have closed.”
Osterling noted one area business in particular, B.B. Vapes Supplies in Franklin, shuttered its business just last week.
“The biggest thing is the perception has changed tremendously, and people are going back to cigarettes because they think this is evil, so they pick the more harmful product.
“The youth epidemic is an issue that needs to be looked at, but there are other options (than flavor bans).”
Paul Pitonyak, owner of 710 Glass and Vapor, in Edinboro and Erie, echoed Osterling’s sentiments.
Pitonyak, who has been in the industry for a number of years, noted that since the the vaping-related illness hit the news, his sales have dropped 40 percent.
“It’s a complicated and multifaceted problem. Here we have people dying from illicit products, but they’re maligning our legal products. How do we address that?
“Hundreds of small businesses are closing because of the negative press. It makes me sad.”
According to Pitonyak, while nicotine-containing vaporizers have been demonized by the media and some officials in the U.S., it remains a highly touted smoking-cessation tool throughout much of the rest of the world.
“The Royal college of Physicians in the U.K. did a study that showed that vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking, and their government has been pushing people to try e-cigarettes.
“Smoking rates have gone down there over 20 percent in three years, which is unheard of. It’s working so well in the U.K., they’re opening e-cigarette stores in hospitals. But here we have the government telling people to stop vaping and people are going back to smoking which kills an average of 1,100 people a day,” Pitonyak said.
Walt Wright, owner of Vape Lab in Kittanning, said that his business has slowed down a lot since the Department of Health released its report.
Wright noted that while he still operates his vaporizer business, he did shut down his manufacturing business after the bottom dropped out of the industry in early September.
“I just can’t afford it anymore,” he added in frustration.
“Flavors aren’t meant to target young kids. I’m 41, and I love flavors. We’ve got all this different alcohol that’s flavored, too, but you won’t see them trying to ban that.”
Michigan became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes in early September of this year, and New York and Massachusetts followed suit a few weeks later.
“In my opinion it’s massive maleficence by the government to blatantly and without adequate evidence blame a product that 13 million people use to keep them off of tobacco which we know kills 480,000 people each year in this country,” Pitonyak said.
He went on to note that flavors in e-cigarettes and vaporizer liquids are no different than flavors in alcohol, which are rarely questioned.
Pitonyak also noted that FDA reports from the state of Pennsylvania show that out of 4,051 tobacco inspections, checking for sales to minors, only 40 were e-cigarette products, and of those 40, the vast majority of the failures were chain convenience and grocery stores.
“In 2018, there was just one actual vape shop that got caught selling to a minor,” he said.
“According to that data, the kids getting products underage aren’t getting them from e-cigarette stores in Pennsylvania, and it’s the same story in every other state I’ve checked. These kids aren’t getting open systems and flavored liquids, they’re buying high-nicotine concentration devices like Juul. We can see, from this data, that banning flavors won’t be effective in curbing that.”
However, though many headlines still still demonize vaping in general, Pitonyak noted that he hopes the more recent information released by the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health will spark a conversation that changes that perception, and makes progress on addressing the very real issues involved.
Pitonyak emphasized that there are solutions; however, there just aren’t simple answers.
“We have some pretty comprehensive data on e-cigarettes and how much better they are than cigarettes, in terms of harm-reduction. It’s very short-sighted to blame these deaths on e-cigarettes.”
“We also have people dying from illicit THC products while we’re still discussing legalization of marijuana. It’s been over five years, and there are states making money on legal marijuana, while we’re considering bans of flavored vaporizer products, which could lead to creating an even worse black market, putting more people at risk. We have to decide, how are we going to address this?”
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