How No Regulation Toasted Vaping

By Peter Galuszka

There’s a mighty disconnect between being innovative in developing new products and putting the buying public in danger. We are often lectured about the benefits brought by industrial creativity unfettered by regulation on this blog and elsewhere but that isn’t always the case.

In fact, doing so without meaningful regulation can spell big disaster for both the public and corporations. The case in point: vaping.

About a decade ago, tinkerers in Asia came up with a pipe-like, vapor device that could give the user an addictive kick of nicotine mixed in a soup of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and any number of hundreds of flavors.

In a few short years, vaping grew with mostly-Asian-made devices to head-shop-like outlets typically located in chic-chic shopping districts or strip malls, some with the motif of 50-year-old head shops with lots of the art of psychedelic or the heavy metal era.

Obviously aimed at young vapers, flavors galore were added. Here’s one of them pitched by a vaping shop I visited for a news story:

“If you gaze at the stars long enough, you might get a glimpse of the proverbial “pie in the sky.” Reward yourself here on Earth, instead, by trying this incredibly delicious toasted coconut cream flavor. The buttery baked piecrust and the sweet vanilla with coconut filling are enough to make you feel like you’ve tasted heaven!”

And you got your addictive nicotine hit, too! It seemed too good to be, too. Proponents claimed that zapping prevented users from getting the cancer associated with the tar and other carcinogens founded in typically burned cigarettes and might actually wean you off cigarettes. Vaping grew overnight into a multi-billion-plus market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration scratched its head about regulation under the Obama Administration and then, Trump delayed regs, at least for a while.

Big Tobacco like Henrico County-based Altria were skittish about getting too involved in vaping, even though its best-selling brand, Marlboro, and other brands were seeing fewer sales. They needed a replacement product.

Last winter, Philip Morris USA/Altria went in a big way and bought JUUL, the largest vaping firm in the country that was based in cool San Francisco (which only seemed to add to the panache) for a sizable $12.8 billion.

Then the vaping smoke, literally, the fan. Hundreds of users became and some died, apparently from some byproduct inn the vaping. It wasn’t clear why. Was it additives from the flavors? Some kind of vitamin? In some cases, bad batteries assembly in Asia with no regulatory standards exploded in use, basically killing some users by making their mouth and jaw (and in some cases, parts of their head) disintegrate.

Now, it’s a real regulatory and corporate mess. JUUL and Altria have pulled millions of dollars worth of advertising as states either ban e-cigarettes outright or ones with flavors. Altria had been due to re-merge with Swiss-based Philip Morris International, but the Europeans, queasy about vaping, nixed the deal.

According to Seeking Alfa, JUUL is expected to announce today plans to cut $1 billion in spending next year, including cuts in marketing and lobbying. It has already been running nationwide “be careful when you use our products” ads sort of the like the type being printed by the maker of opioids and Boeing Max737 aircraft.

On vaping, former Food and Drug Administration David Kessler, who had been speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University, Nov. 11, said: “The industry blew it. It had a perfect opportunity to help figure out how to get a safer alternative and blew it with this explosion in youth use.”

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11 responses to “How No Regulation Toasted Vaping

  1. Good Post Peter!

    The question is: “what would Libertarians do?”

    The FDA is another one of those “troublesome” agencies that causes “problems” for citizens access to drugs and other “uses” and the cost… perhaps it should be treated like the EPA is now cuz we know there are a bunch of scientists involved who are expecting big profits, right?

    • The FDA and the EPA do the job Congress has laid out for them, with the funding Congress gives them. Kessler blaming the industry is convenient but he was the boss at FDA. The story of HOW this industry got this far down the road before the problems exploded is a story probably best explored in those halls of Congress. Big Money. Biiiiiig Money.

  2. Steve, it is still the no reg or lightly reg mentality. Just before ww11 my mom, an art student, got a part time job painting radium paint on aircraft dials until my dad, a med student, convinced her it was a really bad idea

    • And the halls of every legislative body at every level are filled with lobbyists either opposing regulation, or insisting on it only as a protection for their clients.

  3. We’re going through the vape debate in my household. My son likes to vape. The alternative, he says, is smoking. His mom and I don’t like vaping or smoking, but given a choice, I’d prefer he stick with vaping.

    Vaping has caused a number of highly publicized deaths. It turns out that vaping with Vitamin E oil is dangerous. Is it not possible to regulate vaping so as to prohibit the use of Vitamin E oil? Or should we kill the vaping alternative entirely and drive my son back to smoking?

    The challenge here is to rationally appraise the risks and weigh the alternatives.

  4. Jim,
    My first impression about vaping was positive — that it could save lives by deferring people from tobacco. Then a few things gnawed at me. The first was vaping encourages addiction to nicotine which is never good. Secondly, I did a number of stories about vaping and a lot of the products went back to Asia. Nothing wrong with that — most cell phones are made in China under strict conditions. But somehow, the devices seemed to run a big range as far as quality. If one blows up, who do you sue? Are they really safe? The FDA couldn’t say, yet this is the same FDA that takes a dozen years to certify a drug. These could be fatal. There are other alternatives to tobacco than vaping. Hope it works out.

  5. My libertarian perspective is that vaping should have been regulated to the extent that consumers had full information regarding the products and the possible consequences of using those products. It is also perfectly reasonable for the government to prohibit children from using potentially dangerous products because they have not reached the maturity level required to make sound judgements even if they are well informed.

    I would not ban the products long term however. The world is full of potentially dangerous products that are not banned. Cigarettes for example, Alcohol. A 2018 production Dodge Demon that can go from zero to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds. Research, safety warnings, restrictions on the use by minors, reasonable taxes … all fine. Banning their use by informed adults … not fine.

  6. It has been clear for most of my life that tobacco kills (though I too ignored it for too long). King James I saw the danger, the early Christian Science movement railed about the dangers. How people in that industry sleep at night is beyond me, but they do….No ban? And we all continue to pay the health bills directly or indirectly? (They do die early and leave money on the books in Social Security….) At least tax to the level of making a dent in the medical costs!

  7. What’s the legitimate role of government in these products?

    It seems the government feels it has legitimate interests in things like cigarettes, and all manner of street drugs from POT to PCP to heroin, fentanyl, etc. but what’s basis ? what justifies it?

  8. I see a lot of finger-pointing in these posts, but I don’t see any discussion of when we knew there was something to regulate, and how much regulation that knowledge would have caused. The vitamin E thing is very recent vintage. What did we know and when, that had we regulated, we would have prevented illness and deaths? I don’t know the answer to any of these things, so I’m listening.

  9. I don’t know. There wasn’t much done, apparently not in China where most of the devices originated. Also, there may be a link between thc used in the flavor component. This has been suggested but it may not have been a factor until some states and countries legalized marijuana. There’s still the hemp vs thc ussue as well.

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