Electronic cigarettes were originally marketed as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but are now under fire for its own possible health risks.
Electronic cigarettes, or "vapes," have been the subject of national media attention in recent weeks for potential ties to several deaths across the country. The Center for Disease Control recently reported 380 lung illness cases across 36 different states, and six deaths across six states, where the patient had a history of vaping.
The reports caught the attention of political leaders. New York and Michigan recently implemented statewide bans on flavored vapes. President Donald Trump last week called for a ban on non-tobacco flavored vape juice and declared vaping an urgent, public health concern.
Operators of Norman businesses selling vaping products are worried what could be next.
The FDA recently announced plans to develop guidelines to take flavored vape juice off of shelves across the country, which could potentially take place in the coming months. Brian Dillon, managing partner of Velocity Vapes on 1961 W. Lindsay St., said he believes that would have a negative impact on current vape users.
"I'm all for sensible regulation, but if they go forward with the flavored vape banning that they are talking about, it will kill this industry," he said. "Prohibition has never worked, just look at alcohol and marijuana prohibition. And there are a lot of people like former smokers where vaping has improved their health tremendously. But there will be no vape stores, especially small businesses, if this ban goes through. That's just a fact."
E-cigarettes became popular earlier this decade, and were originally marketed to cigarette smokers looking to quit smoking but finding it difficult to quit cold turkey. E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid that produces an aerosol, which the user inhales into their lungs. Vape juice typically includes nicotine, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, although juice can be made without nicotine.
E-cigarette business leaders have noted the use of water vapor instead of smoke and the lack of chemicals that are in most cigarettes as reasons why vaping was a safer alternative to smoking. Dayna Shannon, who operates Vapour Kingdom at 2203 W. Main St. Suite 6 with her husband Jimmy, said she has heard positive comments from former cigarette smokers who switched to vaping.
"From what I hear from former tobacco users, their senses come back," Shannon said. "They have a better sense of smell, their taste buds improve, and their lungs are clear based on doctor reports when they go to see their physician. They feel healthier. I talked to someone (the other day) who is now able to run again, where as before when she was smoking cigarettes she wasn't able to run. Her lungs wouldn't allow it."
However, vaping eventually became appealing for recreational use to non-smokers with the release of flavored juices such as cherry limeade and blue raspberry. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of users that regularly vape increased from 7 million in 2011 to more than 40 million in 2018.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 3.62 million middle school and high school students were regular users of e-cigarette products in 2018, and 81% of those students cited the availability of appealing flavors as the primary reason for use. The Oklahoma Senate passed Senate Bill 33 earlier this year which prohibits vaping on school campuses.
These statistics, along with the rise of what some medical professionals are calling "pulmonary lung disease" related to vaping, led to Trump calling for a ban on all flavored vape juices in an effort to lower teen use and hospitalizations.
Mandy Harvey, manager of Victory Vapor on 550 24th NW Ave, said she is skeptical that banning flavored juices would be helpful in the long run.
"If there's only tobacco flavors allowed for vapes, it's going to make people want to go back to cigarettes," Harvey said. "There are a select number of people that use tobacco flavors because it makes the transition from cigarettes easier. But 9 of 10 people who transition from cigarettes to vapes use a fruity or desert flavor because it helps people get away from the cigarette flavor."
However, the CDC also reported several hospitalizations and deaths potentially attributed to nicotine vaping are also linked to vaping counterfeit marijuana cartridges. Specifically, some health officials have found the compound Vitamin E acetate, which is in some bootleg marijuana vape products that are bought primarily off the street.
"While many of the patients, but not all, reported recent use of THC-containing products, some reported using both THC- and nicotine-containing products," the CDC reported earlier this month. "A smaller group reported using nicotine only."
Jimmy Shannon of Vapour Kingdom, 2203 W Main St. Suite 6, said he is skeptical of nicotine-only products being the primary causes of hospitalizations and deaths.
"Our experience over the last six years (in business) indicates that we have not seen one person get sick from any of the products we manufacture here," Jimmy said. "From what we've read in the news, the products that seem to be affecting people are specific to cannabinoids. We feel as though before the public gets into an uproar and the government begins to take action, they should do some research and focus on the products that we know for a fact have killed millions of Americans, which are cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals."
In response to the concern of vaping-related illnesses, the Oklahoma State Department of Health sent guidance to health care providers across the state asking them to report any unexplained pulmonary disease in patients that might be associated with e-cigarettes. At this time, the department has not confirmed any cases of vaping-related illnesses.
Tony Sellars, director of communications for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said the department is following the CDC's guidance in warning Oklahoma residents against any kind of vaping until there is more information.
Dillon of Velocity Vapes said he is surprised by the recent negative media attention on nicotine vaping, and pointed to the amount of confirmed deaths from alcohol and cigarettes in the last few decades.
"I tell my customers all the time that just because vaping is healthier than smoking, it doesn't mean it doesn't have risks," Dillon said. "I'm not going to sit here and say vaping is perfectly safe. But to me, this doesn't have anything to do with public health. This is about big tobacco and the government forcing the little guy out. Why does every liquor store have flavored vodkas and other drinks? Doesn't that attract kids? If this was about public health, why are cigarettes still on the market?"
There will be a conference on "Vaping and Adolescents" 6 p.m. Monday at the Norman Public Schools Administration Services Center at 131 S. Flood Ave. Dr. William Tankersly, medical doctor at the Children's Recovery Center, will be the speaker. The conference is open to the public.