The flavors sound like something you’d find at a juice bar, tiki lounge or bakery: Blue Raspberry, Mad Mango, Grape Runts and Lemon Cupcake.
But they’re not juices, mixed drinks or any kind of food. Instead, these and dozens of other such products are flavors added to e-cigarettes at vape shops in Douglas County and elsewhere to make them more appealing to smokers. The flavors help longtime traditional tobacco cigarette smokers wean off those products and move to e-cigarettes, which they say are less harmful.
However, the flavored e-cigarettes area being targeted by health care providers and now the Trump administration, which this week announced plans to ban most of them nationwide.
The proposed ban comes at a time when hospitals and health officials in nearly three dozen states have reported nearly 500 cases of vaping-related illnesses since the beginning of the summer. Doctors have said that many patients appear to have vaped some THC or cannabis-related products, although others have reported using e-cigarettes as well. No one has singled out a particular company, device or product as the possible culprit.
Deaths have been reported in Oregon, Illinois, Kansas, California, Indiana and Minnesota. The patients’ ages ranged from the 30s to middle-aged or older, and some had underlying lung or other chronic conditions, health officials said.
While most of the cases appear to have involved marijuana oils, the outbreak has also prompted a reckoning over the proliferation of vape products containing nicotine.
Pediatrician and Douglas County Public Health Officer Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer said the move to ban such products is long overdue.
“Getting rid of flavored vape products is something we’ve been pushing for a while,” he said. “The concern is that they attract young, new users to nicotine.”
The move to ban flavored e-cigarettes follows increasing pressure by lawmakers, parents and educators, who have been overwhelmed by the popularity of vaping among youths and feel powerless to keep e-cigarettes out of their schools. The latest proposal may include a ban on menthol and mint flavored e-cigarettes, which have been the among the most popular flavors for the industry. Research has shown that these flavors are very appealing to youths and to nonsmokers, although some vaping advocates note that they hold great appeal for smokers who want to use e-cigarettes to quit.
Dannenhoffer, however, dismisses that argument.
“I don’t think longtime two-pack-a-day smokers are switching to vape, that’s not what’s happening,” he said. “They’re really attractive to young people who never smoked cigarettes before. They like the taste and the smell of these things.”
Jason Weber, owner of two Smokeless Solutions vape shops in in Roseburg, sees things differently. Weber said vaping is the most successful way to help adults quit smoking. Toward that end he founded the organization Vape Crusaders, which promotes vaping as a way to help smokers kick the habit.
“Vaping is actually bringing the smoking rate down, and the big tobacco companies are doing everything they can to ban us,” Weber said. “It’s proven that lives will be saved if we’re allowed to continue to do what we’re doing.”
At his Garden Valley Boulevard store customers trickle in to discuss and buy his products. One customer, Jessica Tarver, calls Weber “a Saint” for helping her switch to flavored e-cigarettes after smoking tobacco for 11 years.
Tarver said the tobacco cigarettes were taking a toll on her health and she noticed a quick difference when she made the switch. She could go for hikes without losing her breath and she didn’t smell like tobacco. Tarver, who is an EMT and says she sees many people in her work who suffer from smoking-related illnesses, said she would not have been able to quit without her Hawaiian Punch-flavored e-cigarettes.
“Being able to vape something non-tobacco-flavored is absolutely why I quit,” she said. “I didn’t want to smoke tobacco flavor. Why switch to something I’ve already tasted?”
The proposed federal ban follows a move already underway in a handful of states to crack down on flavored e-cigarettes.
This week Michigan became the first state to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also called for a ban, and Massachusetts and California are considering similar measures. San Francisco approved an e-cigarette ban earlier this year, which Juul Labs, the dominant seller in the United States, is lobbying to reverse through a ballot initiative this November.
In Oregon, legislators this year passed a measure for the Fall 2020 ballot that if approved by voters will heavily tax vaping products, beginning in 2021.
Weber, owner of Smokeless Solutions, said such moves are off the mark.
He reels off a bevy of statistics: e-cigarettes are 95% safer than traditional cigarettes; only 2% of high school students smoke e-cigarettes, consistently; nearly 14 million adults in the U.S. use vape products, and so on.
Weber is also quick to point out that the recent spate of deaths from vaping is connected to harmful ingredients added to oil products containing THC, which is different than the e-cigarette products being targeted.
“None of us condone kids vaping but at least we should be happy that they’re not smoking cigarettes,” he said, adding that if flavored e-cigarettes are banned there will be dire unintended consequences.
“Either all of us adults will go back to analogue cigarettes, or it will create the biggest black market we’ve ever seen.”
— Information from the New York Times was used in this report.