“A Potential Public Health Disaster”—Experts Slam Michigan Ban on Flavored Vapes

September 5, 2019

On September 4, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced an executive order banning the sale of flavored vape products in stores and online. While US cities like San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado have previously taken this step, Michigan is the first state to do so.

Gov. Whitmer cited concerns about children and teenagers using candy- or fruit-flavored vape products, and potential health hazards. The ban, administered through the state’s health department, will remain in force for six months under emergency powers, and can be renewed thereafter. Whitmer has urged state lawmakers to codify the ban through new legislation. The new rules will also regulate marketing of vapes, preventing companies from describing them as “safe,” “clean” or “healthy.”

Experts who attest to the harm reduction efficacy of vapes for smokers have condemned the move.

Dr. David Abrams, professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the NYU College of Global Public Health and former founding director of the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, previously testified against a proposed flavors ban in New York City. He says that banning flavored vape products reduces the likelihood of smokers switching, and is therefore likely to result in more disease and death.

“It is terrible to restrict a less harmful product that smokers need to help them quit, while leaving harmful cigarettes in every other store,” Dr. Abrams told Filter of Michigan’s new law. “This policy damages [vapers] and makes them want to get their products from illicit sources, or they’ll be forced back to smoking cigarettes.”

Dr. Michael Siegel, professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, agreed that Gov. Whitmer’s move is counterproductive. “Ironically, when the FDA begins regulating e-cigarettes in 2020, the vaping products being sold in Michigan will be the only ones in the country that are not regulated,” he told Filter. “It is a potential public health disaster.”

That’s not to say that experts don’t share concerns about youth use and marketing practices. “We should not have any predatory marketing that appeals to young people,” said Dr. Abrams. “Of course, you cannot completely control social media and viral media that spreads online. States can protect teenagers and youth by more strictly enforcing 21-plus sales laws.”

“We had a woman who smoked cigarettes for 31 years, and she finally used flavored vape products to quit.”

Nasser Saleh, a former smoker who lives in Allen Park, Michigan, successfully used flavored vapes to quit—in his case, a flavor called “Peach Bliss”—and is appalled by the ban. “I myself haven’t smoked cigarettes in three years because of them, and I don’t have any of the health problems I used to experience,” he told Filter.

Saleh now owns a vape store called Advanced Vapors, and is concerned for the impact this will have on many others. “So many customers throughout the state rely on vape shops to help control their nicotine use,” he said. “We had a woman who smoked cigarettes for 31 years, and she finally used flavored vape products to help her quit a couple weeks ago.” 

Saleh explained that flavored vape products are not a novelty, but a vital aid in smoking cessation. “Without the flavors I couldn’t have quit cigarettes,” he said. “The vape juice without it has a really weird aftertaste. But when you find a flavor you really like, the cigarettes will taste more and more disgusting in comparison. So many of my customers have told me the same.” 

A landmark review by Public Health England in 2015 found that vaping is around 95 percent less harmful than smoking. A major study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this year found that vapes are about twice as likely to aid quitting as traditional nicotine replacement therapy, like patches or gum.

Vaping is not entirely risk-free, and vapor does contain “numerous potentially toxic substances,” concluded the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2018—though in tiny quantities, as found in many common household products. But the institution also stated that “completely substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces users’ exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettes.”

Photo by VapeClubMY via Unsplash.

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