LANSING (Great Lakes News) – In the next 30 days, a large portion of e-cigarette products will disappear from store shelves. All flavored e-cigarette products, including mint and menthol flavors but excluding tobacco flavors, will no longer be available per a ban instituted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The governor’s office made the decision after claiming that e-cigarette use among teens and young adults constituted a “health crisis,” a health crisis that justified declaring a state of emergency and banning all aspects of the industry that could potentially attract young people to vape. In addition to restricting all flavors the ban also extends to words and phrases that might insinuate that using vaping products could be beneficial like “clean,” “safe,” and “healthy.”
Whitmer’s ban came on the recommendation of Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and several anti-vaping advocacy groups like the American Heart association.
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“In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosive increase in the number of Michigan kids exposed to vaping products,” Khaldun said. “This is a public health crisis. These products can contain harmful chemicals that put our kids’ health at risk.”
The American Heart Association joined forces with the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics Michigan Chapter, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and Truth Initiative to show their support for Whitmer’s decision in a joint press release.
“Governor Whitmer has taken bold and appropriate action in response to the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association and a native of Michigan. “In the absence of robust regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, we know shockingly little about the health impact of e-cigarettes being widely marketed to youth and adults. The recent outbreak of respiratory illnesses associated with e-cigarette use has only added to the uncertainty and increased the need for immediate action.”
Joost Vapor, a Grand Rapids based retailer and manufacturer of e-liquid, saw Whitmer’s plan differently. Industry representatives saw the announcement as rash and lacking much needed dialogue. Because the ban is not legislative it will only go into effect for 6 months, after which the governor can extend it by another 6 months. In the meantime, the governor’s office has announced it will prioritize developing and introducing legislation for a more permanent ban.
“We commend the Governor’s focus of combating the underage vaping issue,” Joost Vapor leadership said in a press release. “Instead of initiating emergency powers that are bound to have drastic effects to many employees statewide and thousands of consumers, it would be more effective to work in a collaborative effort with our elected officials and industry leaders to combat the actual causes and offenders leading to underage nicotine use. We offer to do so with the Governor to come up with common-sense, effective regulation that does not punish the consumers and employees of an entire industry.”
Critics believe that Whitmer’s plan lacks the foresight to effectively solve the problems with vaping products, and could potentially exacerbate their use among minors.
“It doesn’t get to the core of the problem,” said Dr. Roger Klein, a former HHS Advisor to the FDA, and legal expert with the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project.
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“You’re taking a product that has the potential to be beneficial to people and outright banning it.”
For many former smokers, flavors provide a much needed transition in their attempts to quit.
“We’ve learned that one of the most important factors in helping adult smokers quit and remain quit from combustible cigarettes is to make sure that those products that they are inhaling have flavors that they like,” said Jeff Stier, Senior Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. “When adult smokers transition from smoking to vaping they initially begin the transition using a tobacco flavored e-cigarette. Soon they begin to get their sense of taste back, and they start to try other flavors that they know are popular and begin experimenting with sweet flavors. Vapers have testified that they have been able to maintain their smoking cessation through the use of fruit flavors.”
By outright banning flavored products, critics worry that former smokers will lack the resources to continue their transition and turn to other sources for their nicotine, be it relapse or a black market. Michigan’s porous borders and the 30 day grace period before the ban is enforced will allow unsavory sellers to stockpile product and sell it under the table. This has the added danger of making flavored vaping products easier to acquire for minors.
“Kids tend to be getting their products through social sources,” Stier said. “By having a more robust black market there will be more places for minors to acquire it.”
Claims of the products containing “harmful chemicals” and causing “respiratory illness” come from a recent explosion of cases of severe lung disease, including one death in Illinois, that multiple public health organizations have tied to the use of vaping products. This phenomenon received wide media coverage, but often failed to message the most likely cause of the disease. Even The New York Times, only mentioned the cases of sickness without specifying their proposed cause. Almost all of the 215 cases of lung disease share a common thread: improper use of the products.
“The CDC has said that those illnesses appear to be related to cannabis or to bootleg products,” Dr. Klein said. “You got thousands, millions, of people who have used products from the large vendors and use them quite a bit. If they caused this acute illness we would have heard of it. These people are using products that were not even invented for vaping.”
Owners of vaping products are using them to vaporize THC oil and illegal street drugs like “spice,” which is oil-based. E-liquids are not oil-based, nor are vaporizing products designed to work with oil-based liquids. Producers also stringently test commercial e-liquids, a standard that street alternatives do not adhere to.
“The cause is coming from products that come in an oil format,” Stier said. “And when you vape an oil with a street drug it’s not surprising to see some acute lung damage. It would be surprising to see that from a nicotine vaporizer.”
Stier also argues that claims of an “epidemic” of vape use among young people is exaggerated by advocacy groups.
“The youth e-cigarette epidemic is nothing short of a public health emergency that must be urgently confronted,” the American Heart Association wrote. “E-cigarette use soared by 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle school students nationwide from 2017-2018. More than 3.6 million middle- and high-school students used e-cigarettes last year – an increase of 1.5 million over the previous year – and public health authorities warn that these numbers likely have continued to rise. Research shows that 97 percent of current youth e-cigarette users used a flavored product in the past month, and 70 percent cite flavors as a key reason for their use.”
““The government data that is the basis for the epidemic argument will look at what they call ‘once in 30 day use,’” Stier said.
Most studies that measure use among young people ask if the recipient has used a vaporizer in the last 30 days. This includes borrowing the device during a party or using it on a dare. While the use vaporizers among minors is alarming and unacceptable, the statistics do not measure addiction.
Dr. Klein argues that if the government wishes to see lasting changes in youth use of flavored vape products they should focus on informing young people.
“I think a more effective approach is to pursue education more vigorously and make people understand that these products are not the kind of thing that you should want to start,” Dr. Klein said. “I don’t know if they are safe, but they appear to be safer than cigarettes.”
Businesses have 30 days to pull flavored vaping products from their shelves and reorient their inventory towards non-flavored and tobacco flavored e-liquids.