Twenty-two-year-old Colten Stankowski dabbled in cigarette smoking before he tried vaping. Once he discovered vapes — and his favourite mint and dessert flavours — he switched for good.
“I liked the idea of it because I always liked the action of smoking and I was like, ‘This isn’t as gross as a cigarette, it’s tasty,’” he says.
But just three months ago, Stankowski quit vaping because of reports about serious health issues linked to the habit.
Those issues have been raised by healthcare professionals who have asked pointed questions regarding the ethics of the industry’s marketing strategies. But at least one member of Calgary’s vaping community maintains these issues and questions are a result of tainted products, misinformation and basic misunderstanding of the vape industry.
A public health emergency
What is now being called a public health emergency began with reports from the United States of an acute respiratory syndrome linked to vaping.
“People have a dry cough, chest pain, shortness of breath — they even have a little bit of vomiting and abdominal discomfort,” explains Dr. Richard Stanwich, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Island and a world leader in the fight against cigarette smoking.
“In extreme cases, individuals even require assistance breathing,” he says.
As of Oct. 29, 2019, 1,888 cases of lung injury and 37 confirmed deaths have been reported in the United States and are being investigated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In mid-September, Canada reported its first case of vaping-related illness and as a result, Dr. Stanwick says health officials across the country are treating the issue very seriously. Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Vera Etches, has called for increased regulations on all vaping products.
But Sean Rankin of Haze Vape Co. in Calgary insists these health issues are the result of tainted vape juice, not vaping itself. Because cannabis is illegal in the United States, there is a black market for THC concentrates that are vapable. Unfortunately, Rankin says, these concentrates are often diluted with oil so dealers can sell more.
“Talk to any juice maker worth his salt [and] he will tell you, you do not use any oils. It’s dangerous. Bad. Don’t use it,” says Rankin.
According to the CDC, 86 per cent of those reporting lung injury — out of 867 individuals who provided information on the substances used in their vapes — said they have used products that contain THC.
Regardless of whether or not the current health emergency is a result of vaping diluted oil THC, vaping itself is still not harmless, according to Dr. Stanwick.
He says that during the heating process involved in vaping, “there’s basically ultrafine particles, heavy metals — volatile hydrocarbons particularly — being created,” which users then inhale when they smoke.
Rankin doesn’t dispute this, but says this must be put into perspective.
“You go downtown, you’re inhaling metals, you’re inhaling dirt, dust, ultrafine particles, all sorts of crap.”
Individuals inhale potentially harmful particles every day, he says. So although Rankin acknowledges particles are created while vaping, he contends they are often not even measurable according to most health standards.
However, Dr. Stanwick emphasizes that new unknown molecules are created in the process.
“I can’t tell you what chemicals you’re going to generate when you superheat [vape juices] and what sort of interactions are occurring,” he says.
What both Dr. Stanwick and Rankin can agree on, however, is that the harms associated with vaping come nowhere close to the harm of cigarettes.
Wild cherry and bubble gum
Nonetheless Dr. Stanwick, who is also a pediatrician, is concerned by the way the vape industry employs marketing strategies specifically targeted towards adolescents who have likely never smoked before. This has led to an increase in youth vaping which normalizes nicotine consumption, he says.
“More than half of the consumers of this product are under age 35 and most of those people probably didn’t take it up to quit smoking,” says Dr. Stanwick.
According to a Health Canada survey, 23 per cent of students in grades 7-12 have tried vaping. Stanwick says a vape’s sleek appearance and electronic features increase appeal which, “pairs well with the iPhone.” He also says the variety of vape juice flavours entice youth and he questions whether a suave, sophisticated 40-year-old in an Audi R8 would vape bubble gum or a wild cherry flavour.
But Rankin says this actually happens.
“People pull up in their Mercedes, fur coats, gold Gucci glasses, the whole nine yards and [ask], ‘What do you have for a strawberry mint?’”
He also notes that flavours actually play a large role in helping adult customers quit smoking.
“I still eat cereal. I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch. If I could vape it to quit smoking — hallelujah, that’s a God send!” he says.
As for the rising numbers of young people vaping, Rankin blames large vape companies as opposed to smaller “grassroots” shops like his own. Grassroots shops existed when vaping was a grey market product. In May 2018, Bill S-5 was passed, excluding minors from such stores. So, Rankin says all of his customers are adults.
Due to the fact vapes are no longer a grey market product, this same legislation has also opened the market to big businesses.
These corporations began aggressively advertising and promoting products with high nicotine levels, using lifestyle marketing tactics that appealed to youth. They also approached convenience stores, making their products more accessible to minors. This marked a shift away from vaping as a smoking cessation tool.
“We don’t sell those brands, we won’t. The day I have to sell one of those brands is the day that I get out of this,” says Rankin.
He believes calls for a vaping ban can be attributed to the public’s lack of distinction between vape corporations and grassroots shops that help people quit smoking by educating customers about how to wean themselves off nicotine.
Rankin himself used vaping to quit smoking after a 27-year addiction and believes passionately in his product.
To vape or not to vape
So are the negative headlines prompting individuals to quit vaping?
Stankowski did. But it’s also clear that he has no real passion for it. In fact, he admits he only started because he observed other people doing it.
Although casual users like Stankowski may be swayed, it appears dedicated members of Calgary’s grassroots vaping community, like Rankin, aren’t. They say despite vaping’s ability to help smokers quit, the news has unfairly lumped all vaping into one category: dangerous.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stanwick and other medical professionals caution this is merely a new mass marketing of nicotine, creating a new generation dependent on the psycho-active substance.
“It’s really the cigarette 2.0 for the 21st century,” he says.
Editors Note: This story is part of the Calgary Journal’s November-December print issue. You can find a digital version here, or grab a copy at news stands across the city.
- By Blaise Kemna