Photo by: Jennifer Mosbrucker/Dispatch Staff
October 12, 2019 9:56:44 PM
Rob Roberts hasn't smoked a cigarette in nine years.
Before his wife died of lung cancer in 2006, he smoked nearly two packs a day. After some "arm twisting" from friends and family, he turned to vaping instead about seven or eight years ago.
Now Roberts owns Nu Way Vape, which sells e-cigarettes and other vaping products at seven locations, including one on Highway 45 in Columbus. He said vaping helped him quit smoking, saved him the money he would have spent on cigarettes and has improved his life and the lives of dozens of his customers who come in trying to quit smoking.
But over the last few weeks, there have been fewer of those customers since reports of vaping-related illnesses began to appear all over the country -- illnesses which Roberts said are not caused by vaping products from reputable vaping stores.
"Look at the history," Roberts said. "We've been going good for eight years, and the only problems you've heard about us (was in the last) six to eight weeks."
This month, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control announced officials are investigating more than 1,000 lung injuries connected to vaping nationwide, with the FDA specifically warning the public not to use tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing vaping products or products "obtained off the street."
Vaping is different than smoking traditional cigarettes because instead of inhaling tobacco smoke -- and the 7,000 chemicals that come with it, including tar -- users are inhaling water vapor from battery-powered devices. However, vape products still contain nicotine and come in flavors from tobacco and fruit to chocolate.
Roberts stressed the illnesses being reported are from the products containing THC (the substance responsible for the psychological effects of marijuana), which are illegal in Mississippi. Not all health officials agree with him though.
"I'm of the old-fashioned thinking that the only thing that should go into your lungs is clean, fresh air," said Dr. Ciro Rincon, a pulmonologist with Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus. "... When vaping initially was brought up, some people kind of played it as the alternative to (cigarette) use in order to quit smoking or to cut down on your tobacco use one way or the other. I think that was a strategy from the companies to sell you more and more products."
Illness and crackdown
According to the CDC, as of Tuesday there were 1,299 cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarettes and vaping products throughout the country, resulting in 21 deaths. In most cases, patients reported a history of using THC-containing products rather than just the nicotine-containing products. However, "the possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded," the CDC's website says.
Mississippi Department of Health has reported five lung injury cases from vaping statewide since Sept. 17, all with patients between the ages of 18 and 35. One of those resulted in death.
Josef Enfinger is worried the warnings will deter cigarette smokers from quitting. He quit smoking nine years ago when he tried vaping in Saltillo. Three years ago, he opened 1810 Vapors in Starkville, and has since opened two more locations in Columbus and Tupelo.
Both Roberts and Enfinger said the products they sell contain four FDA-approved chemicals: propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerine (VG), flavoring and nicotine, with Roberts saying his products contain less than 1 percent nicotine. Enfinger said most of his customers are between the ages of 35 and 45, and Roberts said his average customer is a 55-year-old woman. Both said their customer base is made up almost entirely of people who quit cigarettes.
But Rincon said he hasn't seen many of his patients successfully quit cigarettes when they start vaping, and even those who just vape are still getting the addictive nicotine chemical.
Moreover, he said there are some studies that suggest the chemicals in the flavoring cause allergic reactions in lungs.
"We're talking about very, very thin tissues," he said. "A little bit of inflammation makes oxygen very difficult to go through that tissue."
Both Roberts and Enfinger referenced the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom, which in December 2018 published a study concluding vaping is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, a statement echoed by an article published on Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's website. However, the Johns Hopkins article said e-cigarettes are just as addictive as traditional ones, not the best way to quit smoking and "still bad for your health."
Since the CDC and FDA began investigating the vaping-related illnesses, governments have looked into cracking down on the industry. New York issued a ban of flavored e-cigarette products last month, though a state court has temporarily halted the ban. Still, Enfinger says the ban has already affected his business because he receives products from a lab in New York.
"If the government wants to shut vaping down and ban it as a whole, saying it is for the kids, why haven't they taken cigarettes and other tobacco products off the market?" Enfinger said. "Products that we know kill 1,300 Americans a day and 480,000 a year. Those are still sold in every gas station across the country ... and they're going to be permitted to stay sold while they're coming after an industry that's helping save lives."
Marketing to minors
It's illegal for anyone under 18 to smoke e-cigarettes in Mississippi, and one thing Rincon, Roberts and Enfinger did agree on is that vaping products targeted toward teenagers are problems. Enfinger pointed to JUULpods, which have up to 5 or 6.5 percent nicotine and are commonly found in convenience stores. Roberts and Enfinger said those are the types of products they feel teenagers are getting their hands on.
It's become a concern at area schools. Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright said he dealt with one issue of a student having vaping products on a district campus earlier this month, though he doesn't think the product is out of control on the campuses.
"We're addressing it just as we would the use of tobacco or drugs or alcohol," Wright said. "We're trying to get some speakers come in to speak to our student bodies about the dangers of it."
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat said she's become increasingly concerned about vaping products, and particularly the easily-concealable JUULpods, some of which students can discretely use in class. She said they can be disguised as pens or pencils and that she's seen them in convenience stores in Columbus.
The JUULpods, which are small and resemble flashdrives, are inserted into vape pens.
Prior to this school year, her staff received training from the Mississippi Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oktibbeha, Clay and Lowndes County on how to recognize vaping products.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and I think one thing parents should be aware of it how discretely (their children) can use these products and how dangerous they are," Labat said.
Rincon said many of the companies that product vaping products are owned by Big Tobacco companies, calling vaping -- and particularly vaping targeted toward teens -- "an old enemy with a new face." In December 2018, Time magazine reported tobacco company Altria invested $12.8 billion in Juul Labs, which produces JUULpods.
JUUL representatives did not respond to a message from The Dispatch by press time. However, a message on its website says its products do not contain THC, and that it is working with retailers across the country to not sell products to minors.
According to the CDC, e-cigarettes became the mostly commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students in the U.S. and that in 2016, nearly 7 in 10 students had seen some advertisements for the products.
"Most teens, when they start their experience with vaping, that's one of the things they go for is those flavors," Rincon said. "Our lungs are not fully developed until we're ... 18-20 years old, so exposing your lungs to anything before that can be quite detrimental to the progression of that development."
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