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June 3, 2014

E-cigarettes debate catching fire

JOHNSTOWN — As debate ignites over the burgeoning electronic cigarette industry and a regulatory crackdown looms, former smokers using the handheld vaporizers to kick rolled tobacco, as well as those trying to keep kids safe in light of aggressive marketing and a seemingly lawless distribution framework, are huffing and puffing on both sides of the argument.

The upcoming battle for the mainstream acceptance and fostering of e-cigarettes will likely hinge on politics, said Holly Loupe, co-operator of locally owned e-cigarette store Vape Vibe LLC. She and her husband, Brennan, company president, opened their newest location in the East Hills Plaza, Richland Township, last month.

Loupe said Vape Vibe’s role is educating consumers. That’s evidenced by the average transaction time, which is around 20 minutes, she said. Buyers learn how to clean, refill and keep the product from being damaged. But they get more than just a rundown of how the thing works – they gain insight into the technology and nicotine-infused “juice” from the vaping enthusiasts on staff.

“There were some barriers in the beginning, mostly because of bad experiences from bad purchases,” she said.

More often than not, she said, retailers – especially fly-by-night online “vape” stores – won’t provide customers the information they need to get the most out of it, or vape safely.

“It was very time-consuming. It took us a lot of time to really explain to people how to use the product and help them use it appropriately,” she said.

Salespeople will even take follow-up calls from customers to help them with upkeep issues or give them a refresher on the device.

“There’s so much that the public is unaware of as to how they operate. We really gear ourselves as a full-support vaporizer shop,” she said.

Reports of faulty or hazardous equipment and easy access to minors are just some of the many reasons the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration is beginning to clamp down on the industry. Explosive and emergent growth in the past few years has caused Mitch Zeller, the FDA’s director of tobacco products, to dub the vape industry as the “wild, wild west.”

“We have e-cigarettes that are exploding in car chargers, e-cigarettes that are exploding in wall sockets at home when people try to recharge them. We have e-cigarette users who are saying, ‘This is the greatest thing that I ever had. It has helped me get off cigarettes.’ ... We have a doubling of the number of middle and high school kids who used the e-cigarettes between 2011 and 2012,” he told “PBS NewsHour” in April, around the time the FDA released its new regulatory proposal for public comment.

“It’s going in all different directions. And there’s absolutely no regulation of manufacture, sale or distribution of these products.”

Subpar merchandise – and the distributors who sell it – is one reason why there’s such mixed opinion on e-cigarette safety, Loupe said. Zeller agreed it’s a state of “buyer beware.”

Loupe said all of the Vape Vibe merchandise is tested before it goes on the floor. It also gets a 14-day warranty. They’ve even dropped vendors that have high rates of manufacturer defects.

She said that more often than not, malfunctions boil down to user error, personal damage and – coming full circle – a lack of knowledge in properly using the product.

“We haven’t had any issues with any of our batteries for people who operate their equipment appropriately,” she said.

But who’s thinking of the children? There is no federal law currently in place that prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, although most states have their own restrictions. In spite of that, Loupe said, retailers usually classify them as tobacco products anyway, so the ban is informal, but there all the same.

Recent media reports have highlighted the myriad enticing flavors of e-cigarette liquid as a way to draw in youths.

Vape Vibe is working on offering somewhere around 60 flavors, including cotton candy, banana nut bread and goji melonberry. Many of those are produced by Vape Vibe at a certified laboratory.

But why would fruit flavors be "kids only?" Loupe said she doesn’t see why adult taste buds should have to suffer.

“Do you like orange soda? Do you like raspberry tea? It’s the same thing,” she said. “Adults like options just like anybody else does. When they switch to something pure, they don’t want it to taste bad.”

The marketing, whether geared toward kids or not, is there. Because the e-cigarette ads are not technically selling tobacco, they can also go places Marlboro and Camel can’t, like television.

According to an April study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Nielsen TV ratings data show youth exposure to e-cigarette TV ads rocketed over 250 percent from 2011 to 2013. More than three-quarters of those ads appeared on cable networks and were reportedly for a single e-cigarette brand.

But when all is said and done, is it really healthier? Study data included in the FDA’s recent regulatory proposal show that while e-cigarette vapor still contains toxicants and known carcinogens, the quantity is “significantly less than those in tobacco cigarettes and tobacco smoke and similar to those contained in nicotine-replacement therapies.”

Further study into smoking cessation by JAMA Pediatrics showed in March that tobacco smokers who tried e-cigarettes at least once were more likely to quit tobacco within the next year. It even ups the abstinence rates for regular smokers.

Dr. Matt Masiello of Windber Research Institute said there still hasn’t been enough time to properly study e-cigarettes. But they’re on the market all the same and being pushed as recreation, although they lack any clinical or federal certification. That’s something he would admonish.

“It’s controversial,” he said. “It really comments on our market-driven approach to health-related issues.

“With that being said, the studies really are not out there yet to determine completely whether we should be concerned about these e-cigarettes. ... From a public health perspective, there’s really no clear sign that it’s beneficial.”

Tell that to Zeller.

“If we could get all of those people to completely switch all their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health,” he said last month during a hearing on e-cigarettes.

He said there are currently dozens more studies underway at the administration.

But Masiello said those studies only explore the issue from a fiscal perspective, and not from a health perspective.

“(E-cigarette makers’) intent is not necessarily positive. It’s recreational,” he said. “Whether it’s going to help or hurt the process of reducing the smoking rate is really up for grabs.

“(More studies are) going to bring us down the path of spending more money on a market-driven product, rather than something important, like lung cancer.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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