By Lou Maiellano.
Something has happened to e-cigarettes. As recently as two years ago as I would visit distributors and retailers, I would be asked by those responsible for purchasing, “I’m thinking about adding an e-cigarette to my product mix. Can you recommend a few for me to take a look at and evaluate?”
Today, that discussion is more likely to go like this, “I currently carry four brands of e-cigarettes, and I’d like to get that number up to eight or 10. Any recommendations?” Also, a quick look at any trade magazine serving the retail and distributor community quickly confirms that there are more brands of e-cigarettes than ever before. But, before delving into the brands, I believe that it is critical for retailers and distributors to consider the challenges facing the product and product category and find ways to get smarter and to get involved.
As the e-cigarette phenomenon has grown, so has the media attention. Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and dozens of regional publications, as well as numerous features on large metro-area television stations, confirm that interest in e-cigarettes has never been higher. That’s good. But, a cursory review of the stories and the clips also suggests that this increased visibility has not increased the overall knowledge about this product. And that’s bad.
Know the Products
Generally speaking, the media can be expected to cover the emerging e-cigarette mania in the following ways. First, they find a place where the products are being used—bars, restaurants, workplaces, sporting events and concerts. They interview a user who typically says something to this effect: “These are great. Now I can smoke anywhere.”
Then they interview someone from the FDA, the American Lung Association or the Coalition for Tobacco Free Kids. These groups usually say the following things: “We are concerned about e-cigarettes. They are currently unregulated, untested and we don’t know what’s in them.” Then they go on to say that they’re also concerned because the use of e-cigarettes will normalize smoking, undoing decades of public health initiatives, confuse public officials responsible for enforcing smoking bans and restrictions and introduce minors to the evils of nicotine, providing a gateway to smoking.
For the most part, the media attention has produced a frustrating mix of nonsense, good sense and the utterly senseless. So, if the product is going to continue to grow and prosper, providing revenue and profits for distributors and retailers, it’s critical that supporters of the product understand how to answer the most basic questions about the product.
First and foremost, it is important that everyone understand that e-cigarettes are not untested. In my opinion, the most comprehensive gathering of the significant relevant research that has been done on e-cigarettes exists on the Website of the very helpful e-cigarette trade association, the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA). This information can be found at www.sfata.org.
Also, the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA), funded a study just released by Professor Igor Burstyn, Drexel University School of Public Health, confirming that chemicals in e-cigarettes pose no health concern for users or bystanders. This is the first definitive study of e-cigarette chemistry and finds that there are no health concerns based on generally accepted exposure limits.
In a statement from CASAA, the group explained, “By reviewing over 9,000 observations about the chemistry of the vapor and the liquid in e-cigarettes, Dr. Burstyn was able to determine that the levels of contaminants e-cigarette users are exposed to are insignificant, far below levels that would pose any health risk. Additionally, there is no health risk to bystanders. Proposals to ban e-cigarettes in places where smoking is banned have been based on concern there is a potential risk to bystanders, but the study shows there is no concern.”
In other words, e-cigarette vapor is not the equivalent of secondhand smoke. This is especially important because the media constantly asks, “How do we know that the stuff produced by e-cigarettes—the vapor—isn’t just as hazardous as secondhand smoke?”
Leaving aside my own bias with respect to secondhand smoke studies, let me say that the answer to this question is now fairly obvious. We know that it’s not, because we have a study that demonstrates that this is not a concern. As a result, we also know that bans on e-cigarette use are not productive. They serve to belittle and isolate smokers legitimately seeking to minimize the risk of their behaviors to themselves and others through the use of this innovative product.
As the tobacco industry found itself plagued by one difficult and problematic study after another from the 1960’s through today, it became increasing difficult to address the public health concerns associated with conventional cigarettes. Most of us in the tobacco trade were reluctant to do so because the scientific evidence was growing and it wasn’t good. But, in the case of e-cigarettes, I really believe that the facts will roll out differently. Rather than see one study after another demonstrating the risk of cigarette smoking, we are seeing just the opposite—studies confirming that e-cigarettes pose less risk than many in the anti-tobacco lobby now assume.
Work Needs to Be Done
There are still many hurdles that research and product development need to address with respect to e-cigarettes. There are still many studies to do and there is still the ever-present threat that the FDA could choose to regulate the product in ways that would severely restrict accessibility and innovation. But, thankfully, many in the e-cig industry are becoming more aware of the benefits of the product and many are becoming strong advocates by no longer allowing the mainstream media and the anti-tobacco zealots to define the discussion.
In my travels, I am seeing a surge in e-cigarette use, and interest is rising. But, as I noted earlier, knowledge is not growing at the same pace. I would urge as many retailers and distributors as possible to access the information that is now available to educate themselves. In addition, given how specialized and technical some of the issues are surrounding this product category, I would also encourage retailers and distributors to seriously consider joining some of the more reputable and responsible e-cigarette advocacy groups and trade associations. SFATA would be a good place to start, but there are many other organizations that would merit your time and attention, including The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association (TVECA).
Retailers and distributors would also be well served to regularly follow the activities of CASAA, who provides regular updates and “calls to action” whenever the accessibility and use of the product are challenged by local, regional or state authorities.
It’s simply not enough to assume that importers and manufacturers will protect you and the product going forward. If you want to continue to offer this product and benefit from increased sales and profits, it will become increasingly important that retailers and distributors become advocates so everyone can benefit.
Lou Maiellano spent more than 20 years in several operational positions with Sunoco, Mobil and Wawa and currently operates TobaccoToday (www.tobaccotoday.info), an interactive tobacco industry blog. He can be reached at (267) 229-3856 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.