The Road to Vapocalypse
April 15th, 2009 was a Wednesday. It was around 60 and sunny when the shipment of NJOY e-cigarettes arrived at a warehouse in Phoenix. NJOY e-cigarettes look like combustible cigarettes and are marketed to smokers. Founded in 2006, the brand was in 50 countries by 2009, and its parent company, Sottera, was going places. But on that Wednesday in Arizona, NJOY e-cigs ran into a big obstacle: the FDA, under whose direction they were detained by officials.
Under pressure from tobacco-control groups, the FDA argued that e-cigs were therapeutic products and therefore subject to certain market regulations. In the agency's ensuing legal skirmish with Sottera and distributor Smoking Everywhere, the courts disagreed, asserting that unless e-cig brands made therapeutic claims in their marketing, the FDA lacked jurisdiction. The so-called "Sottera decision" opened the floodgates on the US market, and the deluge had worldwide impact. In 2009, global e-cigarette sales were approximately $40 million; in 2011, just a year after Sottera, sales had quintupled to around $200 million.
Overnight, it seemed, a golden age of vaping swept across America. Vape shops sprang up in strip malls. New technology arrived almost daily -- better batteries, better coils, better juices. Better everything. "That case changed the precedent," remembered Daniel Walsh, the co-founder and CEO of Purebacco, a 30-employee Michigan company that produces e-liquids. "Literally a month later, we went to market."
In 2014, the FDA tried a different tack. It announced its intent to classify vapor products (which at this point included all sorts of devices, not just cigalikes) as "electronic nicotine delivery systems" -- a move that would subject them to the same regulations that govern combustible cigarettes. This meant no more unregulated manufacturing or marketing, no more sales without age verification, no more free giveaways.
If all that sounds good in theory, that's because it is. People on both sides of the debate tend to agree that regulation is needed. They disagree, however, on just how sweeping the regulation should be. For instance, the 2014 proposal included price estimates just for applying to get a single vapor product approved, and it is high. The FDA said around $335,000; an independent research firm quoted in the Wall Street Journal put it at $2 million to $10 million. Either way, it's more than most manufacturers have lying around... except for Big Tobacco. According to Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, these rules would amount to "a prohibition to 99.99% of the market."
While the FDA deliberated the regulations, the US market boomed, teen vaping rates skyrocketed, and doctors around the world argued over vaping's relative health benefits. Then the agency handed down its long-awaited decision. It's 499 pages long, but the sentence everyone has been waiting for is towards the front: "Products that meet the statutory definition of 'tobacco products' include [...] e-cigarettes, e-hookah, e-cigars, vape pens, advanced refillable personal vaporizers, and electronic pipes."
A couple weeks before the FDA made its announcement, I called Walsh. He's a trip: a scientist with blond dreadlocks down to his knees, a background in artificial intelligence, and formal training in shamanism. They call him the "high priest of vaping," and his prophecy was bleak. If the regulations arrived as expected, he predicted, they'd be followed by "a period of petulant tribalism that will be absolutely chaotic."
That period is now upon us.
So, again: do we care?
Why We Should Probably Care...
If the only thing you know about vaping is that it somehow has the transcendental ability to make even Leonardo DiCaprio look like a substitute teacher in a tux, you might be tempted to view all this as a delightful little morality tale: vapers are a bunch of losers, clowns, and loose cannons, and they're getting what they deserve. But that's far too tidy. Vaping, despite its cultural baggage, has genuine potential to benefit public health -- and some doctors are screaming this from the rooftops.
Dr. Michael Siegel is a Boston University professor of community health sciences who has studied tobacco harm issues for about 25 years. "The key issue is not whether [vaping is] absolutely safe," he said. "The key is: is it much safer than smoking? And I think unequivocally it is."
This is a controversial opinion in the US, and many of Siegel's own colleagues disagree with him. Globally, though, his stance is more widely accepted. Take the UK: in 2015, Public Health England released a report claiming that vaporized nicotine products (VPNs) are up to 95% safer than cigarettes. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister David Cameron put himself in vaping's corner. Then, last month, the Royal College of Physicians released its own strong endorsement: "E-cigarettes appear to be effective when used by smokers as an aid to quitting smoking."
Here in the US, vaping has fewer allies. Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, argued that people are both smoking and vaping, not doing one or the other. "When you look at the data, you see that people move to using electronic cigarettes at the same time as cigarettes," she cautioned, referring to this 2014 National Institutes of Health study. Another researcher, Dr. Robert Jackler, a physician and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, contends that doctors can't be totally sure that the aerosols in vaping products won't prove harmful in the long run.
This way of thinking drives vaping advocates crazy. "My frustration level is really off the charts," said Peter Denholtz, the owner of Manhattan's Henley Vaporium. "Sure, we might find out in 20 years that B is bad. Fine! But right now, we know A kills you. We know [cigarettes] kill you! What are we waiting for?!"
People in the vaping world spend a lot of time talking about the technology as a medical miracle that'll save hundreds of thousands of American lives and an economic stimulus that’ll create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. They may be right. The problem with selling this message is that the industry in general and vapers in particular keep getting in the way, displaying an uncanny knack for playing to their worst stereotypes. Call it "life imitates meme," or "heartbreaking," or both. But the fact is, vapers need to be liked right now, and the fact is, they can be really, really easy to hate.