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The Dark Truth Behind Electronic Cigarettes Part II: The FDA, CDC, and Deep Lungs
January 16, 2015
by Loren Mayshark

The carefree era of doctors smoking in hospitals and hawking cigarettes in their spare time has long since passed.  Even truculent teenagers are now well-aware of the dangers of smoking and its impact on their long-term health.  As more consumers look to drop the butts, tobacco companies are scrambling to find ways to stop the bleeding on their balance sheets. 

E-cigarettes, while siphoning some profits away from Big Tobacco, have also presented new opportunities for cigarette companies to make a buck.  Although e-cigs are only a tiny portion of cigarette sales (a little over 1% in the U.S., representing about $1 Billion in 2013) the Reynolds Company projects it to be $3 billion in five years. Those numbers seem conservative to Bonnie Herzog, a New York-based Security Analyst for Wells Fargo who predicts that sales will surpass $10 Billion annually by 2017.[1]  This optimistic forecast is the result of several factors, but one factor that is always of serious concern to tobacco companies is the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

The FDA has always had a complicated relationship with tobacco manufacturers, one that many industry leaders find cumbersome and combative.  If the e-cigarette continues to evade the excessively negative press that big tobacco has become accustom to there is great potential for growth in the tobacco marketplace.  Vapor Corp. CEO Kevin Frija asserts, “If the FDA wants to improve or remove the risk to public health, this is the FDA’s dream product.”  Although it is hard to imagine members of the FDA dreaming of the day when an electronic nicotine-based replacement for tobacco cigarettes hits the market, it does seem plausible that they could take a softer stance on e-cigs than with traditional smokes and chewing tobacco which undoubtedly lead to serious health problems.[2] 

This presents a new quandary for the FDA.  E-cigs come in all sorts of flavors that would be more at home in a candy store than a tobacco shop.  With flavors such as cherry crush, sour apple, bubble gum, and cotton candy one begins to wonder who the target market is for these products.  Despite to the recent rise of e-cig sales, regulation has been slow to follow and vapor products have not been treated like traditional tobacco products. In fact, in our nation’s capital, along with ten states, adolescents the age of seventeen and under can purchase e-cigs. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is quick to remind the public that e-cigs, or what they call Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), are potentially harmful and they are launching a campaign to educate the public about the potential risks.  The heart of this campaign can be summed up in this statement, “Myth Buster: E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless water vapor, it can contain nicotine and other toxins.”  This has led many to question the motives of tobacco companies.  While e-cigs can be helpful to wean adults from smoking, they are also another gateway nicotine product placed in the hands of adolescents in hopes of gaining another lifetime consumer.  Once a teen develops a nicotine dependency after exposure to e-cigarettes at a young age, which can weaken their ability to fight addiction by damaging their prefrontal cortexes, will they not consider graduating to chewing tobacco or real cigarettes?  Tim McAfee, M.D., leader of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health had this to say, “While ENDS may have the potential to benefit established adult smokers if used as a complete substitute for all smoked tobacco products, ENDS should not be used by youth and adult non-tobacco users because of the harmful effects of nicotine and other risk exposures, as well as the risk for progression to other forms of tobacco use.”

Since I quit using my Blu, “vaping” was removed from my everyday consciousness and became a hazy recollection.  Now my only thought is that people in white coats are doing e-cig research in some far off lab.  That was until one of my favorite customers sat down on a stool in the establishment I bartend in and told me about his experience with Blu e-cigarettes.  The client (who prefers to remain nameless will be referred to as “Deep Lungs” from this point forth) said that it began with a routine visit to his doctor to remedy an upper-respiratory infection.  His doctor recommended that he cease smoking immediately to help remedy his condition and he added that quitting would be the first step on the road to overall better health.  Deep Lungs looked down at his beer, as if brooding, then looked up at me and said, “I knew it was the perfect time to quit.” 

Admirably, he started cold-turkey but after two days and some unforeseen stress he was ready to crack.  When he drove to the local convenience store to buy a pack of smokes he noticed the disposable version of the Blu e-cigarette and he decided to give it a try so he could continue his battle.  Deep Lungs ripped it out of the pack and after a few drags he said that he had quelled his cigarette cravings enough to forge on.  He began to use his e-cig more frequently.  At the time he said that although he was paying about $14 per disposable e-cig; he wasn’t smoking.   Sick of paying through the nose for disposables he invested in Blu’s starter kit, which cost around $80.  He continued using the ion battery powered e-cigs for a few weeks and though his vapor smoking became quite heavy, he still wasn’t smoking Marlboros.  He sipped his beer to give pause in the conversation, he continued “then the itching began,” Deep Lungs said while scratching his chest.  He said that he would wake up in the night, itching the skin above his lung area.  A few days later Deep Lungs began to experience the same itching during the day.  After several days of intensified itching in his lung area, he went back to his doctor to report his problem.  Deep Lungs is a man who was a standout multi-sport athlete in high school and had a career as a linebacker in college — he knew about scabies.  When the doctor told him that his symptoms were consistent with a patients he sees with scabies, my client insisted that he was meticulous about washing himself and personal grooming and it didn’t feel like scabies to him.  The doctor asked more probing questions and eventually he broached the topic of the e-cigarette.  When they discussed his usage of Blu the doctor explained that he had had two other patients who used e-cigs that exhibited some of the same symptoms.  He recommended my client quit the e-cigarettes and soon after doing so the ailments disappeared.  Unfortunately, without the Blu, Deep Lungs has returned to smoking real cigarettes. 

Although some advocates contest they are completely safe; e-cigs can be harmful.  Electronic cigarettes “have been found to contain carcinogenic nitrosamines and other harmful impurities derived from the tobacco, as well as the additive diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze.”[3]  To be fair to the situation I must stress that e-cigarettes are still being tested and not all electronic cigarettes use the same technology.  For many people they may offer a safer alternative than smoking and there are obvious benefits to using them over regular tobacco.  But Deep Lungs had a serious reaction to Blu e-cigarettes and he soon learned that he was not alone.  His failed attempt to quit with Blu was a crushing loss in his battle to quit smoking.

This seems to be a recurring narrative: people with good intentions, hoping to finally shake free of the clutches of nicotine addiction resort back to smoking because of a failed vapor escapade.  Vaping can be frustratingly cumbersome and failed equipment can be annoying.  It is far easier to grab a pack and a lighter and return to the habit of smoking cancer sticks rather than deal with finicky chargers or faulty batteries.  Given their financial stake, major tobacco companies are developing and selling these devices for multiple reasons, however helping people quit doesn’t appear to be high on the list.  In fact, many e-cigarettes come with a warning on the label that says they are not tools for smoking cessation even though they are marketed as such.  Although the conspiracy theorist in me wants to believe that they are purposely sabotaging the e-cigarettes so people will resort to buying their cigarettes again, I have not found enough evidence to say this is true.  The facts are that Blu was acquired by a major tobacco company and then dropped in an industry-altering merger.  These things can be maddening to use and are driven by aggressive ad campaigns where C-List celebs are paid, way too much, to endorse a product that is cheaply churned-out.  The vapor world is young and still developing but there must be much more research to determine if they are a safe alternative to other smoking cessation products or just another dangerous gimmick.  One cannot condemn vapor cigarettes as a whole but Blu has a rocky history combined with documented dangerous side-effects.  The choice is yours.  Do you believe major tobacco companies have your best interests at heart?

 



[1] Chris Burritt, “E-Cigarette Pioneers Holding Breath as Big Firms Fail,” Bloomberg, June 21, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-20/e-cigarette-pioneers-holding-breath-as-big-firms-invade-retail.html Accessed On: 12/14/2014.

[2] Burritt, 2.

[3] “Vaping May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” Bloomberg View, August 19, 2013. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-08-18/vaping-may-be-hazardous-to-your-health Accessed on: 12/14/2014.

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