As the FDA cracks down on e-cigarettes, vapers are starting to become one-issue voters
- The US Food and Drug Administration recently continued its crackdown on vaping, issuing a ban on flavored e-cigarette pods, excluding tobacco and menthol varieties.
- While the new rule prohibits the sweet and fruity pods popular among young vapers, it still allows for open-tank systems and e-liquids - the preferred choice for a large number of vapers who've held rallies protesting their right to vape.
- Vaping activists believe vaping saves lives by curbing cigarette use, and have become spurred into political action over their right to vape.
- A Closer Look, Business Insider's new weekly show on Facebook Watch, spoke to vapers who are trying to build a bloc of voters that cannot be ignored.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Following the US Food and Drug Administration's most recent crackdown on flavored e-cigarette pods, vaping activists have a new goal: to become a bloc of voters that cannot be ignored.
FDA officials announced on Thursday it planned to prohibit on the sale of sweet and fruity flavored e-cigarette pods, excluding tobacco and menthol varieties. The new rule would still allow open-tank systems and e-liquids popular among vapers who've held dozens of rallies across the country - and even followed President Donald Trump to his Mar-a-Lago resort over the holidays.
It's the latest in a series of nationwide restrictions on e-cigarettes, which have been linked to more than 2,500 cases of lung injuries or death since June.
But the crackdowns have only spurred vapers into political action - and for many activists, it's the only thing that matters in the 2020 presidential election.
"A lot of vapers are actually single-issue voters now," Austin Lawrence, a vaping advocate who's garnered millions of online followers for his videos of "vape tricks," told A Closer Look, Business Insider's new weekly show on Facebook Watch. "It's good that people are standing up for their right to vape."
A recent survey commissioned by a pro-vaping group found that 83% of active vapers in battleground states said they were likely to vote based on a candidate's stance on e-cigarettes.
It also found that vapers in Trump's base could turn on him over this issue.
Even though the survey had significant sampling problems, multiple reports suggest it influenced the president's position on the issue.
In many ways, vaping's growing popularity among teens is the root of the current flavor backlash.
More than 5 million teens vape, according to a national survey released in November. And e-cigarette use among middle and high school students has skyrocketed over the past two years.
About a third listed flavors as one of their reasons for vaping.
A majority of e-cigarette users say they use Juul, which controls about two-thirds of the market.
The company has responded with a series of youth prevention measures in the US. It launched an age-verification system in stores and online, stopped most advertising and closed its social media accounts. The company has also come out in favor of flavor regulations, and currently sells only tobacco and menthol.
Vapers argue that vaping sweet, fruity flavors helped them quit smoking - and saved their lives.
Vaping activist Jack Wolf remembers when smoking ruled his life.
He vaped for the first time in 2011 - just a few years after e-cigarettes hit the US market, and 25 years after his first cigarette. In just one week, he quit smoking, and his passion for vaping was born.
"It's a life-saving technology as no doubt in my mind," Wolf said.
One thing unites budding activists like Wolf: They believe passionately that vaping saves lives because it helps people quit cigarettes - and flavors, or "juices," are a big part of that.
Wolf believes the flavors are important in curbing smokers' addiction since "most people do not want to have an association with tobacco," he said.
"I tried to quit with a tobacco flavor juice and it just didn't taste like a cigarette to me. And finally they hooked me up with a strawberry custard and that's what got me off the cigarettes," Wolf said.
Wolf voted for Trump in 2016, but said now he isn't planning to vote in 2020.
Vaping activists are fighting not only for their right to smoke, but for the small businesses that sell vaping products.
Vaping activists aren't just fighting for their right to use e-cigarettes. They're also fighting for the small businesses that sell vaping products, including devices that can be filled with nicotine-free e-liquids.
There are more than 10,000 independent businesses across the country that depend on the sales of e-liquid flavors.
Where vaping advocates see benefits, critics see a question mark at best, since there is still no clear data on long-term health effects.
"Although e-cigarettes may be safer than regular cigarettes, that doesn't mean that they're safe," said Brian King, a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control.
"Regardless of the potential benefit that e-cigarettes may have among adult smokers, there's certain populations that should never be using these products."
Last year, the CDC linked an outbreakof unknown lung injuries to vaping.
A media firestorm followed, and many advocates say it was the moment they decided to get political. It's also when vaping businesses began to suffer the fallout as states and cities began rolling out restrictions.
Reports on vaping-related lung injuries have resulted in restrictions that have hurt small, independent vape stores.
James Jarvis, the owner of several e-cigarette stores in Ohio, is one of the many small business owners who said the crackdown on nicotine-free flavored liquids would hurt business. He said sales have decreased by a third in the past year, forcing him to close more than 40 stores since August 1.
"If the flavors go away, the vape shops go away," Jarvis said, adding that flavors make up 90% of his business.
The setbacks mirror those of Juul itself, which announced it was cutting costs by nearly $1 billion and laying off 650 at the end of last year.
Since the first case of lung injuries was reported in March, more than 50 people have died, and there have been thousands of new cases across every state.
But in November, the story shifted.
The CDC flagged Vitamin E acetate as a major culprit in the outbreak. It came out that most patients reported using THC products, which are often bought on the black market.
Brian King, a deputy director for the CDC, noted the chemical is still just one of many possible substances that could be responsible for the outbreak.
For many business owners and vapers, the clarification was too little, too late. That's when industry leaders like Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, stepped up their efforts to get attention from politicians.
Conley has been a vaping advocate for a decade. When the president canceled a meeting with the vaping association in September, Conley decided vapers had to hit the streets. The group held several "We vape, we vote" rallies before the president's own rallies in several cities.
Trump eventually heard them. Conley received a call to join a vaping roundtable at the White House at the end of November. Industry leaders, parent groups, and medical professionals presented their cases to the president.
About a month later, Trump found a compromise: Ban the sale of most flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes - like Juul pods- but spare the kinds of e-liquids used in open-tank systems.
Still, months of backlash have taken their toll, both on business and on vaping's reputation. Vapers still showed up to protest on Trump's doorstep over the New Year holiday.
Jarvis says it will cost millions for his e-cigarette business to comply with new rules requiring FDA approval starting in May. He has introduced CBD products as a way to attract new customers, but he said it hasn't been enough to make up for the losses.
Meanwhile, Lawrence, the "vape tricks" star, is still blowing nicotine-free vape bubbles to pay the bills, but hopes to leverage his fame to launch a fashion line, just in case.
"All we want is to have the right to vape strawberry, the right to vape, cake-flavored, the right to vape vanilla," he said.
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