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The Black Market Is the Real Problem With Vaping

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AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File

Vox’s headline on its vaping story two weeks ago said President Trump canceled his plan to pull flavored e-cigarettes from the market because “angry vapers and vaping companies convinced the president to kill” it. 


In the text of the story, it quoted The Washington Post saying Trump backed off the ban “over fears that it could cause people to lose their jobs and cost him votes among supporters who use e-cigarettes.”

The real reason is that it has become apparent in recent months that people who have been harmed by vaping were not harmed by legitimately made and sold products from the largest manufacturers, such as Juul and BLU, but rather from black market makers who often included marijuana – and in some cases fentanyl – in the chemicals being vaped.

The companies themselves are seeking protection of their reputations and more through the regulatory process. In October, following a spate of stories about people being hospitalized or even, in two cases, killed by vaping, Juul announced it planned to suspend all broadcast, print and digital advertising in the U.S., cease support for Proposition C in San Francisco, a measure that would authorized and regulated the sale of electronic cigarettes and vaping products, and refrain from lobbying the Trump administration as it prepares guidance on vaping overall. 

“Given the lack of trust in our industry, we believe the [Food and Drug Administration’s] PMTA [Premarket Tobacco Product Applications] process and its “appropriate for the protection of the public health” standard are the best ways to assess the role these products can play in helping adult smokers move away from combustible cigarettes while also being kept out of the hands of youth,” the company wrote in a statement


As of Sept. 27, the Centers for Disease Control reported there have been 805 lung injury cases reported from 46 states and 12 confirmed deaths related to vaping. Governors from Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Washington state had issued full or partial bans on vaping. The Food and Drug Administration has said its goal is that “all current flavored e-cigarettes – except tobacco – will be removed from the market” pending further regulatory review.

But, as Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute stated after a lengthy investigation, “none of the evidence provided so far implicates traditional nicotine vaping in the outbreak of acute lung poisoning. Rather, it seems to implicate some new form of TCH e-liquid (the active ingredient in cannabis), most likely one made by illegal operators.”

Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, a cardiologist who studied the sudden outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, pointed out that e-cigarettes have been available over much of the world for 12 years now, but the outbreak of these problems was sudden and confined to a specific geographic region – the United States, and mostly the western part. To him, this is not indicative of a disease caused by vaping but rather of poisoning


Those who have studied bans on such products over time will recognize that word and its association with the current situation. During the Prohibition era, as many as 10,000 people may have died from buying poisonous alcohol – wood or methyl alcohol in many cases, but other types as well. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most deaths from fentanyl, the synthetic opioid pain reliever that has wreaked havoc on American communities in recent years, come from illegally made fentanyl, some of which included cocaine and heroin to increase its effects.

This, says Minton, is why banning vaping would be bad for Americans. “The only reason these people turned to the black market was because they couldn’t acquire cannabis or e-cigarettes legally,” Minton told Forbes. “Black markets only arise when products are unavailable or prohibitively expensive on the legal market, often as a result of well-meaning efforts to protect people from their own choices. But instead of keeping them away from substances that might increase their risks a little, restrictions push people into the illicit market where adulterated and defective products can kill them.” 

Juul and BLU came into business, in part, to offer a product that would enable smokers of traditional tobacco products to shake their addictions. The vaping-related panic of recent months has caused some to return to cigarettes – an outcome not desirable from any public health standpoint.


No one is claiming they are perfect, but their products do not appear to be responsible for the outbreak of vaping-related hospitalizations, and they do appear to be effective at weaning smokers away from traditional tobacco products. 

It’s time to find out why people are getting sick from vaping – and to make sure none were using these products as designed when they were afflicted. But it’s not time to strengthen another black market that could make the problem worse.  

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