On Friday, Walmart said that it would stop selling all e-cigarettes after their inventory runs out, citing “the growing federal, state, and local regulatory complexity and uncertainty regarding e-cigarettes.” The announcement comes in the midst of a number of reports linking use of e-cigarettes, or other electronic vapor inhalation devices, to health issues, including hospitalizations and in a few cases death. Walmart joins Rite-Aid, Costco, and Dollar General in retailers who have decided to stop selling electronic nicotine delivery systems. And Target, Walmart’s biggest competitor, has never sold e-cigarettes and stopped selling cigarettes in 1996. That being said, Walmart is the largest retailer in the country, and other retailers tend to follow Walmart’s lead, as Walmart Chief Executive is the chairman of the Business Roundtable, an influential lobbying organization that includes among its members some of the biggest companies in the world.
While the exact causes of the recent string of vaping-related health scares are as of yet unknown, many affected individuals reported vaping THC products, including some which were acquired illegitimately, and some patients reported using nicotine products. Nevertheless, Walmart’s decision reflects a rapidly-rising anti-vaping sentiment, as e-cigarette use among adolescents has skyrocketed, owing in part to the success of Juul, a company that manufacturers nicotine cartridges and diffusers which can easily be mistaken for USB drives.
The Trump administration had seriously considered banning all flavored vape products in an effort to curb their appeal among young people, but abruptly changed course. Other ways of fighting the popularity of vaping among youth, such as ultra-sensitive vapor detectors which can be installed in schools and other public places, have been proposed. And while manufacturers like Juul claim their products are intended as smoking cessation aids, to allow nicotine addicts to gradually reduce their intake of the drug, these manufacturers profit tremendously off of the sales of e-cigarettes to people who have no intention of quitting, particularly young people. The National Institute on Drug Abuse this week released survey results indicating that the prevalence of vaping among teenagers has doubled since 2017.
Walmart’s action will likely have little impact, as there’s no end in sight for the resilient and centuries-old tobacco industry, which now has more loyal customers than ever before.
It should be noted that Walmart continues to sell regular cigarettes, which have been found definitively to cause major health problems, including cancer, lung disease, and early death, whereas the long-term negative health effects of vaping are still unknown. Additionally, Walmart continues to sell assault-style weapons even in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings in the United States, though the company has imposed limits on the sale of ammunition and discourages open carry of guns in stores. Three major television stations, CNN, CBS, and Viacom have also said they’d stop airing advertisements from e-cigarette companies on their networks in response to fear about illnesses. Additionally, several politicians have returned donations that they received from e-cigarette companies like Juul, unwilling to be associated with companies that have the potential to become the face of a public health epidemic in this country.
Some fear that Walmart’s decision will drive people who ordinarily vape to take up smoking cigarettes instead, as the retailer still offers the latter nicotine product. Others criticize the view that flavored e-cigarettes should be banned, noting that adults also enjoy flavored e-cigarettes, and banning flavors would negatively impact those who use e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool. Regardless of Walmart’s decision to no longer sell e-cigarettes, the nicotine products are easy to find and acquire, even for teenagers, as they continue to be featured in gas stations, convenience stores, and smoke shops. As such, Walmart’s action will likely have little impact, as there’s no end in sight for the resilient and centuries-old tobacco industry, which now has more loyal customers than ever before.
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