Big tobacco. Big government. Big agenda.
Ask someone who vapes about reports that link the activity to a new lung illness and it’s likely you’ll get a response that includes one or more of the big three.
That’s because the practice of vaping is a big deal to local shop owners and their customers.
“I think most people in the vaping community [suspect] that this is a big witch hunt at this point,” said Nick Bianco, owner of Puffy’s Vapor Lounge on Arlington Street in Green and an e-cigarette user. “My response is always the same: Let’s wait until this investigation winds down.”
Bianco said that he believes medical investigators will find the cause they’re looking for in bootleg cartridges and cites a Washington Post article about a link between vitamin E oil used in some of those cartridges and the reported lung illnesses.
But on Friday, after a fifth death linked to vaping was reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that people seriously consider stopping the practice. The recommendation follows one from the Summit County Health Department on Tuesday that advised vapers to quit immediately.
In a study of 53 cases, the New England Journal of Medicine reported Friday that 84 percent of the patients reported having used tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) products in e-cigarette devices.
In Ohio, five cases have now been confirmed, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The agency is investigating 13 other cases, and reported that five people have been hospitalized.
Alex Clark, CEO of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, said federal, state and local health agencies have grouped all vaping activity together despite little evidence pointing to reputable manufacturers of vaping products.
“Most of the cases involve people using underground THC products,” Clark said. “Most health officials are not talking about it in this way. They are still arguably conflating [the two].”
Maurice Thomas, manager of Haze, Herbal & Hydro, a vaping shop on Fifth Street in Barberton, agrees that there’s little threat from reputable producers. He believes that people who come to his shop have decided that vaping is preferable to smoking and poses less risk — not no risk.
“I think most of the customers started smoking cigarettes,” Thomas said. “They already know that [vaping] is a health risk. They think vaping is better for them than cigarettes.”
Kathy Sterba, a Cuyahoga Falls resident who has been vaping for about eight years, said the switch from a 32-year smoking habit worked wonders for her.
The news about an increasing number of cases of pulmonary illness linked to vaping doesn’t worry her.
“I just know that a lot of people have messaged me or tagged me [about it],” she said. “I think everybody’s overreacting.”
Sterba said she cleans her vaping unit regularly and buys from a vaping shop she trusts.
“Number one, [it’s] where you buy your product from,” she said. “You have to get quality, you can’t buy it from Joe Blow on the street. Do regular maintenance on your device. You have to.”
Bianco said dependability and reputation in the industry are vital.
“We go with strictly reputable companies,” he said. “Major distributors in the U.S.”
Bianco’s experience with vaping resembles Sterba’s.
“I started smoking at 9 and stopped at 30,” Bianco said. “I breathe better, I can smell better and taste better, my blood pressure is down. I can run again.”
He said that making the switch didn’t come with the belief that vaping was safe and eliminates the risk of ingesting nicotine.
“Vaping was designed as a harm reduction product,” he said.
Sterba said she’s been a vaping disciple after making the switch.
“I have convinced 20 people over the last few years that are now smoking e-cigarettes,” she said. “Everybody that has tried it has loved it. Some of the people have been able to quit [completely] from it.”
Clark, whose organization has 250,000 members, said too much pressure from federal, state and local health agencies could push nicotine consumers to resume tobacco use.
Next month, the legal age to buy nicotine vaping products will rise to 21 across Ohio. Tobacco products are included in the ban.
Thomas said he is vigilant about “carding” customers.
Because nicotine vapers tend to be younger than users as a whole, it’s key to keeping the products out of the too-young-to-vape crowd, he said. He's no fan of the age increase to 21, but stoic about the change.
Keeping his product out of the hands of young people is especially important to him because fruit-flavored cartridges are popular at his Barberton store.
“It’s on store owners' shoulders to check on those IDs,” he said. “It all starts with checking IDs.”
Clark said he’s sympathetic to vapers who think Big Tobacco is kicking back with a big cigar while they watch the struggles of an industry that's taken business from them.
“They are losing a lot of money with vaping,” he said. “And what better way to curb it?”
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconjournal.