A small crowd of e-cigarette enthusiasts gathered outside a Santee vape shop on Tuesday (October 4), rallying in support of access to the controversial products that some credit for breaking years-long addictions to cigarettes and others say are a threat to "re-normalize" tobacco use, particularly among minors.
"For me, this is about freedom — it's about being what you want to do, be it smoking cigarettes or cigars, or vaping," congressman Duncan Hunter told attendees of the Right to Vape Tour, a cross-country event aimed at engaging vapers politically. "At some point here in the next year, you're going to see a situation where it's illegal to vape, illegal to smoke [tobacco], but it's okay to smoke weed. I think that's crazy."
At issue are federal Food and Drug Administration regulations that took effect August 8 declaring e-cigarettes, their liquids, and accessories to be tobacco products, subject to oversight by the agency. Under the new rules, any tobacco products introduced to the market after February 15, 2007, have two years to undergo a time-consuming and costly review process or be withdrawn from the market.
"It's akin to [alcohol] Prohibition, not only because of the time it's going to take small businesses to go through the application process," is how Right to Vape organizer Paul Blair describes the process. "The FDA estimates it's going to take about 500 hours per product application to review, or a little over $300,000 per application. But it could be as much as $1 million per product, and for small businesses that sell hundreds of products the cost is onerous."
Most of the explosive growth in the e-cigarette market has come in the past two to three years. With many of the small-scale industry producers saying they can't afford to put their products through the approval process, advocates say they'd be left with outdated and ineffective options.
Hunter also said, "The first iPhone came out in 2007. If you have one of those that you haven't passed down to your toddler yet, take a look at it compared to current technology. That's what they're trying to do with [vaporizing devices]."
Hunter, who gained notoriety for his cause while vaping during a congressional hearing in an attempt to stop a ban on using the devices on airplanes, says he'll introduce legislation within the next year differentiating vaporizing products from tobacco.
In the meantime, activists are pushing for a change to the "predicate date," asking Congress to direct the FDA to begin enforcing its regulations from when they took effect this year, rather than retroactively. A similar attempt to insert such language in a House omnibus spending bill failed in 2015.
Unhelpful to the cause of vapers is a divide in opinion over whether the devices are beneficial to those seeking to quit smoking or just a new way to entice children to pick up a nicotine habit. The California Department of Public Health, for example, has invested big in its Still Blowing Smoke campaign, which serves as a clearinghouse for news reports warning of an onslaught of advertising targeted at children and of the largely unknown long-term effects of vaping.
Meanwhile, Public Health England, that country's government health authority, declared last year that "the current best estimate is that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking," though criticism emerged after it was discovered that some of the researchers had links to the tobacco industry.
The group in Santee, however, drew little youth participation. Most in the crowd who'd showed up of their own volition were in their 40s and 50s, though the rally also included a large contingent of 20something vapers who mostly appeared to be employees of vape shops or product suppliers.
Before being led into the United Vapes storefront and being enticed to review their voter registration and send emails to their elected representatives with the offer of a free T-shirt, the 39-year-old Hunter concluded that education and outreach might help sway some, but that others would likely never come around.
"Frankly, the average age in Congress — in the Senate it's, like, 70 years old; in the House, where I'm at, it's more, like, mid-to-late 50s, which is fine, but they have no idea what this is. They think it's kids going around blowing giant clouds of vapor in their face while they're having lunch, but that’s not what it is," said Hunter.
His take on some of his staunchest opponents?
"Their ideology is really more of an emotional argument than a factual argument, and it's really hard to win an emotional argument, right? That's it."