The owners of area vape stores say legislation intended to protect public health – including a county-wide ban on the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 – could backfire by boosting black market sales of vape pens and e-liquids.
Alachua County commissioners approved an ordinance that will go into effect Oct. 22 in response to community concern about the growing teen vaping epidemic. Retailers face license suspensions if the ordinance is violated, and with less than one month before it goes into effect, some vape shop owners have expressed frustration with the upcoming change.
“When you ban it, you create a black market,” said Daniel Deal, owner of Vape Dimensions at 530 N. Main St. in Gainesville.
Deal said that black market vape product sales have given reputable vape retailers a bad name. Unlike the Food and Drug Administration regulated products he carries on his shelves, black market sellers have free reign to include harmful additives in their vape products that can ultimately result in vape-related illness and even death.
While federal health officials are investigating links among the over 1,000 vape-related illness cases and at least 18 vape-related deaths, unregulated cartridges containing THC products have accounted for a number of the reported lung-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two weeks ago, Florida reported its first vape-related death. The Florida Department of Health has not released any identifying information about the individual who died. According to the FDOH website, officials are taking steps to respond to this emerging public health issue. The FDOH is coordinating with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to develop a disease case definition and to report cases of illness to the CDC to be part of the national investigation; working with county health departments and clinicians to identify and investigate reports of lung disease associated with electronic cigarette or vaping use; and monitoring and conducting surveillance of lung disease that is associated with electronic cigarette or vaping use.
Garrett Mashburn, lead salesman at The Grab Bag Co. on Northeast 23rd Avenue, said pre-filled cartridges readily available in gas stations are easily tampered with. These pose bigger threats to consumers, particularly children, than the products sold in Gainesville stores.
Young people will buy vape products from wherever they can, he said.
“Kids are going to do what kids are going to do regardless,” Mashburn said.
Other community members, however, said they support any policy that keeps children and adolescents from using nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, regardless of whether or not they are regulated.
Art Fogey, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said the sheriff’s office hasn’t come across any cases of illegal vape product sales in Alachua County, but he would not be surprised if they were to see cases in the near future.
Carrie Geiger, principal of P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School highly approves of the county ordinance banning tobacco sales to anyone under the age of 21. She supports any measure to reduce access to vape products among her students who range from kindergarten to 12th grade.
“The contents of a Juul pod can be fatal to a small child,” she said.
Roger Papke, a UF professor researching the nicotine receptors in the brain, explained experts still know little about the long-term effects of these products. However, despite the unknowns, he said that his research continues to show that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the market, even more so for younger consumers.
“Tobacco products are the largest preventable cause of death in the country. I don’t see why products shouldn’t be regulated,” Papke said.
Curtis Cybenko, owner of High Tides Tobacco and Gifts on Southwest 13th Street, said he refuses to sell high power nicotine or salt nicotine in his shop because of its detrimental health effects.
Salt nicotine delivers the same kinds of effects as actual cigarettes due to higher nicotine concentrations, which the CDC warns could substantially harm young users especially. While Cybenko agreed with the decision to make it harder for children to access tobacco products, he said the Alachua County ordinance would have proved more effective if the county commission had focused instead on banning high power nicotine products like Juuls and illegal online sales.
Cybenko said vape products can help people with nicotine addictions use a less harmful alternative on the path to quitting entirely.
“Most important thing to me is that you don’t pick up a cigarette,” he said to a customer as he gave her the vape device she wanted to purchase for free. “We’ll get you off cigarettes. I promise.”
Mark Sexton, the communications and legislative affairs director for the Alachua County manager’s office, is an ex-smoker and has a hard time believing that retailers have altruistic reasons for opposing the ban.
“We have an industry trying to poison people,” he said. “Who knows what these people’s lungs will look like in 20 years?”
Sexton said the county wants to fight the tobacco industry’s overt marketing tactics to draw in younger consumers. He acknowledged that while black market sales might be a valid threat, that will not prevent the local government from taking action with the hope of drawing federal support in the future.
“At least I can go to bed at night knowing I tried,” he said.