During the last several years, e-cigarettes and their vaping brethren have gained substantial popularity, nominally as a tool for people to quit the more harmful habit of smoking tobacco through cigarettes, cigarillos, etc. Smokers could get the nicotine fix they desired with, seemingly, far less of the known health risks that are associated with smoking tobacco.
More and more, though, non-smokers began to use the devices, or vapes, recreationally, or without having smoked tobacco habitually before at all. That accompanied an increase in the marketing and production of a wider array of vape flavors; as well as more companies trying to enter into the market, either via producing the liquid that is vaporized to be smoked, or the actual device itself that served as the delivery system. Seeing someone stroll down the Commons or sit at a bar in downtown Ithaca now with a thick cloud of white smoke wafting above them wouldn’t even draw a second glance. Juuls, the small e-cigarettes that have more resemblance to USB cards than traditional cigarettes, were the prime example of this, as they became fixtures at virtually any social event involving young adults.
But then the tide changed, as vapes began to take on blame for making users sick. Cases seemed to sprout up out of nowhere over the summer, with scary new details emerging seemingly each day. First, a few people had fallen ill, primarily young adults or teens, with an unclear connection to vaping. As the summer progressed, more and more seemed to be ending up in the hospital with symptoms ranging from coughing fits, dizziness, vomiting, and the perceived link to vaping became stronger before four days ago, the Center for Disease Control announced that the link to vapes containing THC (or the active ingredient in marijuana) bore a much stronger link than vapes containing solely nicotine.
Regardless, fear grew out of the illnesses, so much so that Gov. Andrew Cuomo made New York one of the first states to take legislative action against the products, following Michigan. He banned flavored vapes, at least temporarily, announcing the move earlier this month. That was after the Center for Disease Control published guidelines on its website for the purchase and consumption of e-cigarettes, essentially telling people to stop smoking them for the time being until the issue was resolved; at that time, the end of August, they reported 215 cases nationwide. By now, that number is generally acknowledged to be up to 800, with 15 deaths associated as well; though as mentioned before, the CDC has now stated that the cases are more likely to be coming from unregulated, black market THC vaping products than their commonly sold counterparts. Of those who reported issues, 77 percent were using THC-exclusive products or both THC- and nicotine exclusive products, while just 16 percent were using nicotine exclusive products only. The company “Dank Vapes” was specifically pointed out as one of the unregulated, illicit brands that should be avoided (if the name didn’t already tell you that).
The ban didn’t come out of the blue. Similar legislation has come before the state legislative bodies previously, but hadn’t gained enough momentum to win approval. That was before the rash of illnesses, though, which generated higher awareness and forced Juuls, vapes, e-cigarettes and their less reputable off-brand products into the national spotlight. With the momentum created by a summer full of scrutiny and uncertainty, Cuomo issued the emergency declaration to ban flavored vapes, eventually leaving only tobacco-tasting e-cigarettes on the market based on the theory that those were actually helping smokers lay off of their harmful habit.
"It is undeniable that vaping companies are deliberately using flavors like bubblegum, Captain Crunch and cotton candy to get young people hooked on e-cigarettes - it's a public health crisis and it ends today," Cuomo said in the announcement of the ban. "New York is not waiting for the federal government to act, and by banning flavored e-cigarettes we are safeguarding the public health and helping prevent countless young people from forming costly, unhealthy and potentially deadly life-long habits."
Ithaca’s State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D) said in a statement to the Ithaca Times that she supports Cuomo’s decision to temporarily ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes while more information is gathered, noting her concerns over the headline-grabbing illnesses that have emerged lately.
“There has been a disturbing increase in the number of young people who are using these products, and we don’t know enough about the long-term health impacts, so this seems like a very prudent approach,” read a statement provided by Lifton’s office. “My understanding is that the Governor’s Executive Order is a temporary ban, and since our Assembly bill on this topic almost made it to the floor for a vote last year, I’m reasonably confident that the legislature will take up this issue again in the coming session.”
What this means for the ultimate fate of many vape shops in New York State remains to be seen, as the ban’s grace period ends on Oct. 4. Certainly, though, the ban is sure to have a significant impact on local shops that relied on flavored oils and liquids to support themselves.
“Prohibition has never worked, we can see that in alcohol, marijuana, whatever,” said Dave Barry, the director of operations of Unique eCigs in Ithaca and a board member of the New York State Vapor Association. “Prohibition is a losing formula. We believe there are different regulations that can come about to keep these products out of the hands of youths and yet keep the flavors in the hands of adults who are able to make the switch.”
Some of those regulations, Barry said, could include the impending legislation that will raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21 years old statewide from 18, adult-only establishments, a cap on nicotine content, ID verification software, training for vendors, etc.
More than anything except restaurants, there are plenty of vape shops on the Commons; four to be exact. This publication has often sarcastically pointed out the potential popping of the “downtown vape bubble.” Tensions are fairly high among these smaller vendors, both for what their future holds and wariness of being painted as purveyors of products that are to blame for a new panic among parents and illness in kids and teens. Employees at each downtown Ithaca seller of vape products declined to comment, citing nervousness of appearing in the press and referring questions to their out-of-town owners, who did not respond to requests for comment. The only store to publicly acknowledge the ban, though, is Vape Dragons on the Commons, which affixed a sign to its front window announcing that its hours would be cut due to the new law, and telling customers to direct their blame at Cuomo.
“It’s a huge deal for these vape shops and small businesses,” Barry said. “We’re actually gathering numbers right now to determine how many vape shops are going to close, because it’s going to happen. Over 90 percent of what people were purchasing, when it came to e-liquid, was a flavored product. Without that, vape shops are going to close. There’s about 700+ vape shops in the state of New York [...] They can’t survive such a hit as this.”
These places also feel cheated in that, as more information has emerged, it seems the products they sell, whether they be e-cigarettes or Juuls or other varieties of vapes, aren’t actually to blame for the health scares over the summer. As early as Sept. 5, the Department of Health announced that high levels of Vitamin E in the black market THC vapes was likely the culprit, which their products don't include. With that in mind, Barry said his organization feels the governor’s decision is not only misguided, but that it’s a “slap in the face” when they feel they have tried to follow all the rules in the relatively young industry. While those products have varying levels of nicotine (Juuls are particularly high), they don’t include THC when they are sold by the vendors.
Tyler L., who didn’t want to use his last name while speaking to the Ithaca Times, is a habitual vape smoker who said he doesn’t necessarily support the ban, but understands its motivations.
He’s been vaping for about 10 months, using a Juul, and going through about one pod per day (one pod has the same amount of nicotine a 20 cigarettes.)
“I’m going to be a little pissed,” Tyler said. “But I’ve been trying to quit anyway, so it’s just a little extra motivation. [...] I think that people who still want to smoke the mint or flavored ones, they’re going to be able to find places that have it. As long as it’s still legal in Pennsylvania, I know people who have already told me that that’s where they’re going to get it if they can’t find it here anywhere.”
He did add that the majority of people he knows who do smoke vapes aren’t using them to quit smoking actual tobacco, but are instead doing so recreationally, seeking the feeling that vapes induce. Among those users, flavored substances are more popular, including the mint, or menthol, that Tyler uses. Studies by the US Food and Drug Administration have shown younger people prefer the menthol taste, which is commonly used to flavor cigarettes (and is the only legal cigarette flavor), to plain tobacco. Though it was initially exempt from the flavored vape ban, Cuomo moved to ban it as well after a recommendation from the state’s health director.
He also theorized that there would still be places in the area that you could find similar products to Juuls, or even Juuls themselves, it might just be a bit harder. The only discomfort he’d ever endured when smoking a Juul was some soreness at the back of his throat, usually the result of puffing too much in a single day. Before he switched to Juul, he’d use a larger, more traditional vape, which would occasionally give him shortness of breath. Other than those relatively minor concerns, though, he had no complaints. When information was still murky over the summer, Tyler said he was somewhat concerned about continuing to smoke, but as the link to THC now seems stronger he’s less worried.
“A little bit,” Tyler said, holding his Juul. “I’d get a cold or something, and start coughing, and think ‘Oh man, is this the beginning?’ But I never really had any issues with it. I’m a big statistics guy, I feel like it’s more likely to get struck by lightning than die by smoking one of these things. At least in the short term.”