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A vape shop in Queens, New York. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some are stocking up on flavored pods. Others are relying on an online “black market” when the ban is enacted.

Alex Barretta knew it was time to use his coveted 25-percent-off Juul coupon. One week before the Trump administration announced its plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes last Wednesday, Michigan — Barretta’s home state — became the first to impose a statewide prohibition on flavored vape products, which would go into effect in 30 days.

The 25-year-old Grand Rapids resident went online to order a stash of Juul pods, buying 15 four-packs in total. He selected 13 mint packs (his go-to flavor) and tossed in one four-pack of mango and another of a generic fruit flavor (for the heck of it, he says). With the applied discount, the total was $190.67. It wasn’t bad for a stockpile that would last Barretta, by his estimates as a heavy nicotine user, about a month.

“Tfw your state bans flavoured e liquid and you have 30 days to stock up,” he wrote Friday on the subreddit r/juul, posting a screenshot of his purchase.

“That’s a lot of pods,” one Reddit user wrote. “Good idea,” said another. A few others left panicked questions: Is the ban real? Which states will it affect? What flavors will be banned?

Several states, including Michigan, DC, and New York as of this writing, have proposed regulations on flavored e-cigarettes, in addition to the prospect of a federal ban supported by the Trump administration. The details vary by state, but Michigan will effectively ban all flavored e-liquids except tobacco-flavored pods, and New York will only allow menthol and tobacco flavors.

These bans are intended to address youth vaping, but in public statements, lawmakers and health agencies have rarely articulated the distinction between nicotine e-cigarettes and marijuana THC vapes, which are the purported source of an uptick in vaping-related illnesses and deaths. This has led some to fear for their health; people are relinquishing their vapes or reverting to smoking cigarettes as a last resort.

Many vapers’ natural response to a federal ban — one that looks more likely by the day — has been simple: Stock up. Those I spoke to were either purchasing nicotine pods in bulk, as Barretta did, or relying on an online “black market” network of e-liquid pods — presumably from bulk buyers — if the ban were to be enacted.

The vaping community has long braced itself for harsher regulations. “Vape” was selected as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2014, one year after Juul Labs was founded. Since then, e-cigarette use, especially among minors, has skyrocketed to “an epidemic proportion,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that e-cigarette use among high schoolers increased by 78 percent — from about 12 percent to 20 percent — and there’s a growing body of research that suggests how vaping can lead to smoking.

Within the past year, vape companies have faced heavy scrutiny from FDA officials and federal and state lawmakers. Last September, companies faced pressure from the FDA to halt illicit e-cigarettes sales to minors, which drove vapers to speculate about an incoming ban. The agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to brick-and-mortar retailers who illegally sold vapes, threatening to remove the flavored products from the market.

As of August, 18 states have upped the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21, forcing Juul — the San Francisco-based vape company with a monopoly on the market — to enact an age verification system for online purchases.

On Twitter, it’s hard to tell how seriously people are taking the “Juul apocalypse,” as one tweet described it. Every time there’s news of a federal crackdown on Juul, a common troll-ish joke circulates with the intent of mocking vapers’ nicotine addictions.

Users joke about stocking up on Juul pods and reselling them for twice the price when they’re banned, usually directing these jokes at teens who shouldn’t be vaping in the first place.

Still, this current wave “definitely feels more real,” Barretta tells me, compared to previous e-cigarette bans. In the wake of seven vaping-related deaths in the US, federal agencies, politicians, and health advocacy groups share the same widespread concern: They say vaping is dangerously addictive and deadly.

But it’s important to note that many of the victims affected by the respiratory illness were using counterfeit pods with THC, a chemical found in marijuana, not nicotine pods manufactured by FDA-regulated companies like Juul.

In early September, health officials found a common chemical within black market marijuana vaping products used by victims who developed a lung condition, the Washington Post reported. The chemical, vitamin E acetate, is used by distributors to dilute cannabis oil. Leafly, the largest cannabis site in the world, reported in late August that “a new type of additive started showing up in late 2018, and has since become widely used in underground markets.”

E-liquid CBD refills for marijuana vapesPhillippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
E-liquid CBD refills for marijuana vapes from a shop in France.

In June, The Verge reported that online marketplaces like eBay host the sale of vaping products, which is a violation of platform rules and the target of anti-counterfeiting efforts by Juul. Still, many of these products are able to slip through the cracks. There are also underground cannabis vape-cartridge operations, with sales arranged on social media or sold in pop-up shops or through dealers.

And the market for eager buyers is there, in stores and online. As Vice reported last year, “The logic behind counterfeiting pens is the same behind ripping off any high-status brand: Produce merch at lower cost, then fool people into buying the knockoff.”

Sid Friedgen, an 18-year-old in Michigan, recently bought a mango four-pack of Juul nicotine pods from Canada but says that he’s financially limited when it comes to stocking up. Many of his friends are buying in bulk, he adds. Friedgen, however, trusts he’ll be able to find pods online; he’s already purchased a few from online shops that don’t require age verification; he looks at the packaging to see if “it looks fishy.”

He typically only purchases Juul pods, he says, not off-brand nicotine cartridges that tend to malfunction or taste differently. In regard to the ban, Friedgen says that he understands the precautions politicians want to take but acknowledges that there’s a massive unregulated online market that many users — minors as well as some adults — turn to for cheaper illicit sales.

“I heard that these kids buy black market juice and modify their pods to make it hit harder or burn faster,” says Bryan T. Nguyen, a 21-year-old vape user from California. “People don’t understand that if you’re a responsible and sensible person, then you’re not going to do that.”

Nguyen adds that people are freaking out because vape products are being conflated, with little distinction between marijuana products — which appear to have caused the mysterious lung outbreak — and nicotine vapes.

Experienced vapers and “vape influencers” say a federal flavor ban will create a black market of non-licensed retailers that could increase the risk of lung diseases and use among minors. A ban would make teenagers and inexperienced vapers vulnerable to black market sellers who can exploit their lack of knowledge, Barretta says. If all flavored nicotine pods are banned, it’ll be difficult to tell how legitimate vendors’ products actually are.

“Speaking of the black market, the surest way to get people to have more problems like what we’re seeing right now is to take away these flavors,” said vape YouTuber Tony Brittan in a video about the flavor ban. “Because if you do, you’re going to have people making these things in a kitchen or a bathroom … Then it’s not being made in a lab, and all the respectable stuff that I use are from labs, certified labs that are free of germs.”

(On YouTube, there are hundreds of tutorials on crafting DIY e-liquid juice, featuring flavors like coffee, strawberries and cream, and grape soda Jolly Rancher.)

Brittan, who has more than 164,000 subscribers, believes that flavored products are crucial in keeping adults away from cigarettes. The news coming out of the White House on Wednesday was “a gut punch,” he said in the video. E-cigarette companies have until May 2020 to file their premarket tobacco application bids to stay on the market, a date that was expedited from the original August 2022 deadline previously set by the FDA. Still, Brittan thinks the dominant political opposition to flavored vape products will prevent them from getting approved.

Flavored pods aren’t going to disappear tomorrow, Matt Culley, another YouTuber who produces vape-related content, told his 284,000 subscribers in a livestream on Wednesday. Wait and see what’s going to happen, he said. It’s going to be a process.

“If you’re just sitting back concerned about yourself and how you’re going to get flavors, I think you’ll find a way,” he said during the stream. “Whether that be buying online from another country or just other online sites that haven’t been enforced against yet.”

The way vapers see it, the ban will possibly drive people away from vapes — what they see as a safer alternative to smoking — while flavored traditional tobacco products and cigarettes are still widely accessible.

Maciej Goniewicz, an e-cigarette researcher at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Vox’s Julia Belluz that the flavor ban might have unintended consequences. “[It] may reduce rates of vaping among kids, and it may also have a negative impact on those ex-smokers who quit smoking as they may relapse to smoking,” Goniewicz said. “It looks like a double-edged sword.”

Cigarettes are still the leading preventable cause of death in the US, killing about 480,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While medical experts agree that vaping is far better for health than smoking, Belluz wrote about how vaping might be more dangerous than we realize. People haven’t been vaping for long, so the science on its effects are far from conclusive: “It may take decades for any diseases possibly caused by e-cigarettes to fully surface, particularly in the young, healthy people now using them.”

Still, many politicians are harshly condemning vaping, sometimes equating its effects to that of smoking. When Michigan passed its flavored e-cigarette ban, Rep. Rashia Tlaib (D-MI) supported the measure, tweeting “we must stop repeating the lie that vaping is better than smoking cigarettes.”

Jacob Grier, writing in Slate, countered this: “These decisions contradict the advice of many scientific bodies that have studied the potential of tobacco harm reduction. But more than that, they are a gift to Big Tobacco.”

It’s unclear how much tobacco companies have to gain from stricter regulations on vaping products. The federal ban coincided with plans of a $200 billion merger from Philip Morris International, a major tobacco company, and Altria, another tobacco giant with a 35 percent stake in Juul. The merger, Forbes reported, now appears uncertain.

A congressional hearing on Juul’s role in the youth nicotine epidemic.Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A slide showed at a hearing by the House Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee on Juul’s role in the youth nicotine epidemic.

The fear among vapers is that these federal and state regulations might drive people back to smoking. “Menthol cigarettes will still be able to purchase in the US,” exclaimed Nick Green, a vape YouTuber and vlogger, in a livestream on Thursday. It “makes you want to pull your hair out,” he said, that menthol vaping products will be banned but not flavored cigarettes. Green urged his audience to look at how other countries are addressing vapes and used the UK as an example: Two London hospitals had just allowed vape shops to open on their premises to ban smoking in and around the buildings.

Meanwhile, the US is aggressively moving to enact regulatory policies reminiscent of the war against Big Tobacco in the 1990s — except this time, the focus is on vape companies.

Barretta, who was the last smoker within his friend group to convert to Juul, is adamant about how vapes have changed his lifestyle. “I don’t miss cigs,” he says, and thanks to the ban, he’s considering weaning himself off his Juul after he finishes the stash he ordered.

“It’s a matter of being responsible about how you’re vaping,” Barretta said. “The demonization of vaping isn’t the right route to go.”

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Author: Terry Nguyen

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