Can Vaping Survive a Deadly Market Environment?

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It was supposed to be an alternative for the remaining millions of addicted tobacco users for whom other smoking cessation methods and products designed to help them quit the deadly habit of smoking failed. Electronic cigarettes promised to provide a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, which after decades of research and deadly experience, finally resulted in a significant generational decline in the use of tobacco as a delivery system for addictive nicotine. Initially the e-cigarette industry found favor among users and many anti-tobacco pundits who were looking for another tool to detoxify millions of the young and old who wanted to quit smoking but who found the available remedies unsuccessful. At one point in its brief history, e-cigarettes were predicted to replace tobacco as the preferred nicotine delivery system within ten years. While e-cigarettes have been presumed less harmful over the long run than cigarettes, the ultimate impact from years of vaping is not yet known.

In the past this lack of credible long-term research and experience has tempered Federal Food and Drug Administration regulations. Marketers of vaping products and e-liquids focused consumers’ attention on the perceived “safer than tobacco” message and stressed the limiting of sales to adults only. Sales to minors was recognized by responsible marketers and the industry’s Association as potentially lethal to long-term success. Offering e-liquids in hundreds of flavors, sellers strived to differentiate their delivery system from other forms of tobacco use. The lack of offending taste, odor, lingering second hand smoke and the ability for users to step-down their level of nicotine were touted as some of the benefits to e-cigarettes.

This week the industry’s efforts to promote the safety and effectiveness of its products experienced what may be a fatal blow, when it was learned that hundreds of vapers across the country became seriously ill after using electronic delivery systems. While no single brand of design of electronic device or liquid was identified, the process of converting nicotine laced, oil-based liquid to vapor has been publicly blamed for an outbreak of serious lung disorders and numerous deaths. It appears as though the one constant is the victims’ use of the devices to deliver THC.  Afflicted patients have reported using cannabis-related products, but authorities are not limiting their investigation to any specific type of vaping device or liquid. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said, “It’s probably something new that has been introduced into the market by an illegal manufacturer, either a new flavor or a new way to emulsify THC that is causing these injuries.” However, the quantity of the illnesses and the unfortunate and unexplained deaths have unleashed wide condemnation of the vaping industry and has resulted in a public call for action.

This week the Trump administration said it was moving to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes. President Trump said, “We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our kids be so affected.” The focus of the message is consistent with vaping industry opponents who have long used the “we have to save the children” mantra as their reason for concern for the public use of electronic delivery systems. Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, said that the Food and Drug Administration would outline a plan within the coming weeks for removing flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods from the market, excluding tobacco flavors.

The Vapor Technology Association, an e-cigarette and vaping industry trade group, asked “public officials to thoroughly investigate the circumstances which might have led to each reported hospitalization before making statements to the public as to whether certain products are implicated in these incidents.” The former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb went on to say, “Make no mistake. We see the possibility for electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) products like e-cigarettes and other novel forms of nicotine-delivery to provide a potentially less harmful alternative for currently addicted individual adult smokers. But we’ve got to step in to protect our kids.”

Composing a compelling message in response to the growing negative narratives may be impossible for marketers of vaping to construct. After all, no one, even the most insensitive of beings, want to be blamed for promoting harm to our society’s children. Despite their claim to be different and more beneficial than tobacco, e-cigarette makers may need to look to the tobacco industry’s long and storied past and how they have managed to combat, navigate and survive a deadly market environment.

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