Recently, a string of vaping-related hospitalizations made headlines and led to growing concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes marketed as healthier alternatives to cigarettes and other tobacco products. In the aftermath of this news, a number of states have moved to ban flavored vaping products, and the federal government even contemplated the idea of banning all flavors of vapor except tobacco nationwide. This sudden spike in concern has led to problems for the vaping industry, as blame is being placed squarely on the manufacturers of nicotine-containing products for the public health epidemic, and as the growing popularity of vaping among teenagers and young people threatens to undo the work of several decades of public campaigns aimed at curbing nicotine addiction.
Juul, a brand which has become synonymous with vaping as it controls roughly 70% of the e-cigarette market, recently saw a change of leadership as it replaced its CEO with a former tobacco executive. A sudden change in leadership is never a good sign for a company, particularly one as large as Juul, and this news comes amidst other troubling developments for the company. Recently, the F.D.A. claimed that Juul broke the law by implying that e-cigarettes were safer than traditional cigarettes despite the lack of scientific evidence concerning the long-term health effects of using the products. Even more disconcertingly, the F.D.A found that Juul was marketing their products to teenagers in high schools as part of a campaign ostensibly targeted at reducing tobacco use by young people. Juul has said that it intends on fully cooperating with the F.D.A.’s regulations, and has announced it will not fight a proposed ban on flavored nicotine cartridges. Next year, e-cigarettes are scheduled to be banned in San Francisco, and Juul is considering whether or not they should abandon a ballot initiative to overturn the ban.
In order to stay on the market in the United States, Juul and other similar companies have to be able to prove that their products promote public health more than they harm it, which is growing increasingly difficult as the news reports of vaping-related hospitalizations and an epidemic of nicotine addiction in young people. While initially envisioned as a tool to help people quit smoking, vaping has instead become a fashionable trend, and many who are addicted to nicotine have no history of smoking cigarettes. The rise in popularity of e-cigarettes has been explosive, and while F.D.A. regulations concerning the sale of nicotine products have long been in effect, regulatory bodies have yet to catch up with the specific public health problems that e-cigarettes in particular pose.
Health professionals across the country are in virtual consensus in advising against the use of e-cigarettes, except as replacements for cigarettes as smoking cessation devices. Even then, there are nicotine delivery systems, such as chewing gum and patches, that are likely safer than vaping as they do not involve any inhalation of chemicals. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, said that e-cigarettes should be clinically tested to determine whether they are effective as smoking cessation tools, and if they are they should only be available by prescription, which is the same standard to which other potentially dangerous drugs are held.
While recent develops certainly don’t bode well for the e-cigarette industry, it’s difficult to make any concrete predictions about the fate of affected companies. Famously, the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars lobbying against the notion that cigarettes cause cancer and other health problems, and were very successful in doing so for several years. Vaping has become so widespread that its popularity perhaps even eclipses that of the tobacco products that preceded it, and as a result, the industry has a lot of money to spend on resisting regulatory efforts. However, the government has fought Big Tobacco before, pioneering widespread public health campaigns in an attempt to stop tobacco use, and as such has plenty of relevant experience to apply to fighting Juul and similar companies. Meanwhile, a meaningful segment of an entire generation of young people who otherwise would not have been exposed to nicotine are addicted to vaping, and only time will tell how they will be able to get their nicotine fix in the years to come.