Vape shops respond to e-cigarettes controversy

The Vaporium, in Waynesburg, saw a 40% decrease in business since September, after cases of lung injuries associated to vaping started being shared in the media. (Photo by Natasha Heinz)

On Oct. 4, the Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed another death due to lung injuries associated with vaping. According to Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, the state now has nine confirmed and 12 probable cases of lung illness that resulted from vaping.

Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are investigating 63 more cases across the state that could be associated with vaping.

Levine stated that there is no confirmation on what substances are making people sick and whether the illnesses are from the vape solutions or the delivery of those products. She also urged people to stop vaping “illegally bought products, in particular those with THC.”

The cases in Pennsylvania aren’t isolated, but rather part of what the CDC is calling an outbreak, with at least 19 confirmed deaths nationwide.

On Sept. 11, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar spoke on the matter, saying the Food and Drug Administration would start a ban on flavored vaping products.

According to Azar, about eight million adults and five million children use e-cigarettes and adolescents are drawn to the flavored options.

For vape shop owners in Greene County, flavored e-liquid is what draws most customers, but they aren’t necessarily young.

“Flavored e-liquid is the number one thing that we sell, and that’s not just us, that’s any vape shop,” said Josh Whoolery, who owns The Vaporium in Waynesburg.

Autumn D’Eletto, owner of Cloud9 Vapour in Carmichaels, pointed out that any age group can be interested in different flavors.

“Us older people don’t exactly want tobacco-flavored products,” she said. “I am vaping to get away from tobacco, smelling the tobacco, using anything that is like tobacco. I’m 41 years old and I love cotton candy flavor. I don’t really think it’s mass targeting like they’re trying to make it out to be.”

Glen Whoolery, Josh’s father, agreed. For him, flavored e-liquids are like flavored alcohol.

“People come in here and they buy the same favorite flavors and these are not teenagers,” Glen said. “These are people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Moreover, for Josh, the ban on flavors will not stop people from vaping but rather open unregulated offerings because the main ingredients in the products are easy to find.

D’Eletto, a former nurse, said she believes the current health concerns are related to black market sales, especially of cartridges with THC. Cyanide and Vitamin E were among the substances found in studies conducted so far.

“People out there are trying to use liquids and things in the vapes that are not supposed to be used in them,” said Tammy Fischer of Fischer Antiques in Waynesburg, who has been selling vaping products for about five years. “If you just left it alone and used it for the purposes it’s been used for and the juices that have been checked out and are regulated and so forth, you would be fine.”

Both Fischer and D’Eletto said they haven’t lost any business since cases of pulmonary diseases and deaths related to vaping started coming out because their customers know to get their vape juices from reputable sources.

Fischer added that, for the past year, her business has consisted mainly of supplying regular customers with the liquids they need. That is because Pennsylvania imposed a 40% tax on vaping products in 2018, which led to a fall in her sales.

Whoolery said he’s had a 30 to 40% decrease in business since September. The loss is not from avid vapers, but new customers, who are now changing their minds about buying starter devices to quit smoking. He added that, before the issues started, his sales had been higher than ever.

However, he believes that business will improve once people start educating themselves on what is happening.

Whoolery cited a 2018 study from Public Health England that deemed using e-cigarettes 95% less harmful than smoking, arguing that he thinks tobacco companies are partially responsible for the crackdown on vaping.

“My feeling is, if they really were that concerned about public health, then cigarettes wouldn’t be on the shelf to begin with,” Whoolery said.

All three business owners said a number of their customers used to smoke cigarettes and reported feeling better after switching to vaping. But they do believe people should do research to understand what is going on.

“I tell all of my customers, especially the ones who also have children, if your child vapes and they’re of legal age, you need to do the research...And if you have underagers, then you need to educate them as well on not … getting started on doing it,” D’Eletto said. “Truly for me, I think vaping should be for those people that are looking for a way to quit smoking and to get away from their nicotine addiction.”

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