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Vapers say they’re unfairly tarred with the THC brush

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A man stands in front of a store that sells vaping products.
Twent-one-year-old Conor Vitt works at Maplewood Tobacco and E-Cigs Center. He used to smoke and vapes now but said he would take up cigarettes again if vaping were banned.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

As reports circulate about deaths and injuries attributed to vaping, users of e-cigarettes are contemplating a hard choice: Will they have to give up nicotine or switch to some other means of ingesting it — like cigarettes?

Conor Vitt, 21, works at Maplewood Tobacco and E-Cigs Center. He’s a former smoker who has switched to vaping. If vaping were banned, would he take up cigarettes again?

“It’d be really hard not to,” he said. “That’s really the only way I’d be able to get my nicotine.”

Vitt said he doesn’t like the taste of cigarettes and is convinced e-cigarettes are safer, “by far.”

A customer at the store, Johnathan Tho, 18, said vaping relaxes him. He said he’s pretty sure that if regulators ban e-cigarettes, he’ll turn to conventional cigarettes: “If it comes to it, yes.”

Deaths and cases of severe lung disease have prompted regulators to call for a crackdown on e-cigarettes. But some in the industry say they're being unfairly blamed for health problems that appear to be associated with illicit vape products containing THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Of the dozens of cases of severe vaping-related lung disease in Minnesota, state health officials say none was linked to the use of nicotine alone. All of them involved either THC or some other substance.

To be clear, it’s inaccurate to suggest that a vaping ban would deprive vapers of their only means of getting nicotine. There are other alternative nicotine products, like gum, patches and lozenges. Those products are approved for use as smoking cessation aids — and e-cigarettes are not.

U.S. public health officials have never promoted e-cigarettes as an acceptable alternative to conventional cigarettes.

“What I would tell anybody using e-cigarettes, youth or adults, is the long-term safety is unknown,” said Laura Oliven, the tobacco control manager at the Minnesota Department of Health.

She said science does not back up claims that e-cigarettes help people stop smoking.

“We really do not have long-term studies and evaluations that find the efficacy of the use of e-cigarettes as a quitting device, nor do we have studies that show the long-term safety of these products," she said.

Public health officials in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, take a position that is entirely different: They promote vaping as an alternative to smoking. They've concluded vaping is 95 percent safer than conventional cigarettes.

John Britton, professor of epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, directs the U.K. Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.

“The line taken by Public Health England,” he said, is that e-cigarettes “are much less harmful than smoking tobacco, and can help people quit smoking by switching on to e-cigarettes. And that therefore they’re a good thing.”

A man poses for a photo.
Jesse Griffith has been selling e-cigarettes for a decade. Some of Griffith’s customers have been making their opposition known. They post placards at his stores, naming their favorite flavors and stating how long they’ve been off conventional cigarettes.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Back in Minnesota, Jesse Griffith said the blanket warnings about lung disease are driving some ex-smokers back to the habit they had quit.

He’s an entrepreneur who has been selling e-cigarettes for a decade. He said policymakers are conflating black-market THC products with legal e-cigarettes, and that’s hurting e-cigarette sales.

Griffith currently has four locations in the state, as well as a manufacturing facility where he mixes vape liquids. In response to talk of banning e-cigs, or at least vaping materials with flavors other than tobacco, some of his customers are posting signs at his stores. The signs declare how long they’ve been off cigarettes and name their favorite vape flavor.

“We have customers who definitely want their voice heard on this,” Griffith said. Policymakers, he said, are conflating legal vape materials and illicit THC products.

“The way that state and federal officials responded has been solely focused on trying to minimize the access to flavors, so I think that certainly sends the message that our industry is the problem, not the illicit drug trade,” he said.

Griffith supports increasing the minimum age for all tobacco purchases, including e-cig products, to 21. He also said that limiting e-cigarette sales to specialty shops like his, and removing them from convenience stores, could help keep them away from young people.

He hopes regulators will adopt a measured approach as they seek to address increased lung disease and underage use of e-cigarettes.