On Wednesday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that her state would become the first in the country to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. The ban, which will go into effect immediately, gives vendors 30 days to comply and remove all flavored nicotine vapes, with the exception of tobacco-flavored products.
The ban is intended to curb the use of e-cigarettes among young people, as research has found that flavors like “Fruit Loops, Fanta and Nilla wafers” attract younger consumers, serving as a gateway to developing a longer-term nicotine habit, Whitmer said in a letter announcing the ban to Michigan state senators. The ban will also prohibit billboard advertising for e-cigarettes and marketing that uses such terms as “safe” or “healthy.”
Whitmer also noted that the ban was prompted by the recent nationwide rash of more than 300 mysterious, vaping-related lung ailments currently under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as one confirmed vaping-related death in Illinois and a second potential death in Oregon. In Michigan, six potential vaping-related illness cases are currently under review, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The ban is not the first of its kind: most notably, San Francisco issued a more draconian ban earlier this year, prohibiting the sale of all e-cigarette products pending more research on its long-term health effects. Further, it’s not exactly a law in the traditional sense. In an interview with the Washington Post, Whitmer’s aides said she took executive action to order the ban after the state health department publicly declared vaping a state emergency. Further, the ban will only be effect for six months; in the interim, the health department will develop more permanent regulations regarding the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.
But in terms of the larger conversation currently unfolding about the health risks of e-cigarette use, Whitmer’s drastic action is certainly a step in the right direction, says Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor at Stanford University and principal investigator at Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. “I applaud it. I think it’s the right policy,” he tells Rolling Stone. Banning flavored e-cigarettes reduces the risk of young smokers becoming hooked on vaping, while simultaneously ensuring that e-cigarettes are still available as a cessation method for adults who smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes. “You have to balance protecting young people with allowing less risky products to satisfy the needs of current smokers.”
That said, in light of the estimated 37.3% of older high schoolers who are currently regularly vaping — a number that has increased exponentially in recent years — there’s still something of an open question as to whether such a policy will actually be effective at deterring teens who are already vaping from continuing to do so. Additionally, as more information emerges about the national public health crisis that precipitated the Michigan ban — as as that information points away from generic e-cigarettes, and more toward bootleg THC cartridges — it does beg the question: exactly how effective will the Michigan ban be at discouraging teenagers from vaping? Perhaps more to the point, will it actually solve the problem that it was intended to solve?
It’s undeniably true that flavored e-cigarettes serve as a gateway for teenagers to develop fuller-fledged vaping habits, says Jackler, who has done multiple studies on how e-cigarette companies market to younger consumers, and who testified to this effect in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform back in July. In one study that assessed Juul’s digital marketing methods over the course of three years, Jackler and his team found that the company’s social media campaigns strongly emphasized its flavored pods, encouraging consumers to share their favorites with hashtags like #coolmint and #mangomonday and even holding tasting events where influencers could sample various flavors for $1 each. He likened the appeal of sweet and fruity flavors to kids to that of cereals like Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs, which are sold at kids’ eye-level in supermarket aisles across the country: while adults may enjoy such offerings as well, “there’s a differential appeal of sweet and fruity flavors for young people,” and banning such products will do much to prevent potential new consumers from getting hooked.
But while banning flavored e-cigarettes will undoubtedly prevent new underage consumers from becoming hooked on e-cigarettes, it likely won’t do much to curb the black market proliferation of e-cigarettes, predominantly on the internet, where such markets thrive. “If you ban it in Michigan, people will just go to Indiana and load up their truck with flavored e-cigarettes,” Jackler says. Though he notes that this should not be reason in and of itself not to curb sales at brick-and-mortar vaping stores, he says that a federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes would likely be far more effective (indeed, the FDA has proposed a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, though former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned before such policies could be implemented).
To a degree, the creation of a black market is inevitable whenever any type of product is banned or heavily restricted, and consumer representatives for the vaping industry have predictably voiced this argument in response to the Michigan ban, expressing concern that it could lead to the explosion of black-market sales. But in the case of e-cigarettes, such concerns may be particularly trenchant: though the CDC has declined to provide specific numbers, as Rolling Stone previously reported, many of the more than 300 recent cases of lung ailments attributed to vaping that are being investigated by the CDC have been the result of young people purchasing black-market THC cartridges, not mass-produced e-cigarettes from companies like Juul. And if this bears out in the CDC investigation, banning e-cigarettes could very easily exacerbate the very issue it is purporting to solve.
Jackler says that while he believes Juuls may not necessarily be the culprit behind the recent CDC cases — “if it was coming from Juul, we would’ve seen it in the past,” — he says that such cases have been valuable in highlighting the very real risks of vaping in general, as evidenced by the Michigan ban. “Even though these particular incidents are not from commercially marketed vaping products, [they have] focused the attention of the U.S. public on the health consequences of vaping and pointed out the need for regulation and oversight,” he says. Placing the blame entirely on bootleg THC cartridges, or fretting over the bootleg e-cigarette market exploding as the result of a statewide ban, is not sufficient reason to not implement “well-thought-out policies” trying to prevent children from becoming hooked in the future.
Vaping, he says, is essentially a long-term “experiment on these kids’ lungs,” citing the relative lack of research surrounding its long-term effects on lung development. “It’s very possible it’ll cause serious problems downstream,” he says. “The point is, we just don’t know.” Despite the potential shortcomings of the Michigan ban, it goes a long way toward promoting national conversation about the fact that vaping has risks — some of which we may not even fully understand yet.