Jake England, owner of Village Vapors, 720 E. Canal St., Winona Lake, hopes to cut through the cloud of myths surrounding the dangers of vaping, claiming his store is there to help people get healthier by kicking the cigarette habit. Photo by Amanda Bridgman
Jake England, owner of Village Vapors, 720 E. Canal St., Winona Lake, hopes to cut through the cloud of myths surrounding the dangers of vaping, claiming his store is there to help people get healthier by kicking the cigarette habit. Photo by Amanda Bridgman
Depending who you talk to – or what you read – vaping is either helping people’s health or killing them.

The thriving vaping industry has come under fire recently after seven people have died from apparent vape-related illnesses.

On Thursday, Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, announced the agency’s Office of Criminal Investigations opened a criminal probe into the cause of the mysterious vaping-related lung disease that has also sickened 530 people. Patients first started showing up in doctors’ offices around the country in July with lung disease.

Health officials have said no consistent e-cigarette or vaping product, substance, additive or brand has been identified in all cases, nor has any one product or substance been conclusively linked to lung injury in patients.

But, most patients do report vaping THC, the compound that produces a high in marijuana.

Local Vapers

Local vapers here have their own opinions, and say they have the science to back it up. Going up against Big Tobacco and ill-informed media is hurting their crusade to help cigarette smokers kick the habit, they say.

“People are dying from street drugs,” said Jake England, who’s owned Village Vapors in Winona Lake since 2013. The 15-year pack-a-day smoker said he kicked the unhealthy habit in just a week after his friend got a vape and he tried it.

Bernice Phifer, general manager of Vape St. on Winona Avenue, said there are only four ingredients in a vape: “You got your pg, your vg, your nicotine and your flavoring.”

What’s In It?

PG is the propylene glycol. Propylene glycol is a synthetic food additive that belongs to the same group as alcohol. It is a colorless, odorless, slightly syrupy liquid that is a bit thicker than water and has practically no taste. The PG in a vape “carries the flavor,” Phifer explained.

The VG stands for vegetable glycerin. Glycerin is a sugar alcohol derived from animal products, plants or petroleum. Vegetable glycerin is the variant made from plant oils. The VG in a vape is what makes the fog when vapers exhale, Phifer said.

“Vg is what makes the fog in scary houses,” she explained.

The third and fourth ingredients in a vape are the nicotine, and then the flavoring – both of which are optional.

Phifer said the big clouds of “vapor smoke” people see are misleading.

Vapor Vs. Smoke

To understand what it is, we must define smoke and vapor.

Smoke is the result of combustion. When combustion occurs, new chemicals form through the process of oxidation. Smoke contains thousands of new chemicals different from those initially burned.

Fire is what makes smoke.

“It’s not on fire,”?Phifer said of a vape. “When you smoke a cigarette, a fire has to be involved to create the smoke. You’re inhaling the same thing a car exhaust puts out.”

“Nicotine is not what causes illness,” England said. “Nicotine can be found in eggplant, tomatoes, nicotine is found in all sorts of stuff. It’s the tar and the combustion that causes illness, lung cancer.”

When a substance becomes gaseous at a temperature that is lower than its point of combustion, it is considered vapor. The chemicals that are in vapor are the same as those found in the vaporized substance. For example, when water begins to boil, it makes vapor. While the vapor is in a different state, it still  has the same chemical makeup as the liquid water.

“It’s 95 percent safer (than cigarettes),” Phifer said.

Health Department’s View

Teresa Reed, a communicable disease registered nurse with the Kosciusko County Health Department, said while she can only recommend people don’t engage in picking up an addictive habit to nicotine if they don’t already have one, she can also only say that she’s really not sure yet about the harms or benefits of vaping.

Because most of the illness and death cases have involved THC cartridges, Reed said,  “if you’re talking to people about illegal products, you can’t find the problem easily. We can look for patterns, but we have a new problem and we don’t know the core answer.”

On Monday, two Wisconsin brothers were charged by authorities for allegedly running a sophisticated vaping “empire” that is now being investigated for links to the recent vaping-related illnesses and deaths.

The brothers have been hit with intent to manufacture and distribute THC over 10,000 grams and maintaining a drug house, among a slew of other drug-related charges, and are accused of paying at least 10 people to put liquid THC into vaping cartridges and package them to look like candy.

Phifer says she’s worked with Reed and has even received information from the health department. She also said Vape St. is registered with the FDA with their manufacturing license to make their vape juice.

A current suspect in the illness outbreak is Vitamin E Acetate, according to reports from health officials with the FDA, who also say it’s too early to say whether this is causing the injuries.

“It’s a lipid, it’s a nonsoluble molecule that can’t escape the lung and then infection forms around it,”?England said.

Reducing Harm

England said his goal is harm reduction.

“Cigarettes kill 480,000 Americans every year,” England said. “States are addicted to the revenue they get from big tobacco, from big pharma.”

England says it’s a money game that’s trickle-down effect will be catastrophic to the health of the population.

“There are over 13 million vapers in this country, 95% of which are former smokers,”?he said. “To turn them back to smoking is irresponsible. Until you’ve shown an outright harm from vaping, banning it is excessive.”

Youth And Vaping

According to Indiana’s Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Vape-Free Indiana campaign, Indiana teens are more likely to use vaping devices than cigarettes.

The e-cigarette JUUL is available in gas stations and comes with pre-filled cartridges, some with doses of nicotine equivalent to an entire carton of cigarettes.

“It’s save the kids, but that’s the parent’s job,” England said. “Then it’s, ‘well, we don’t know what’s in it.’ Indiana has manufacturing standards. But now that the argument has come full steam on the federal level, the science is with us.”

Proposed Legislation

The full-steam federal fight is referring to legislation that is being introduced – as recently as Thursday by US Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., that would ban flavored e-cigarettes and apply cigarette taxes to the devices, among other measures to curb teen vaping.

Called the Ending New Nicotine Dependencies Act, the legislation would ban e-cigarette flavors other than tobacco, specify e-cigarette design standards, monitor the public health risks of using tobacco products, apply existing cigarette taxes to e-cigarettes and direct the Department of Health and Human Services to educate the public about health implications of using e-cigarettes.

“Vaping companies have hooked millions of our children on nicotine using e-cigarette flavors like ‘gummy bear,’ ‘scooby snacks,’ and ‘strawberries and cream.’ This means massive health consequences for the next generation, and we have to end this addiction crisis,” Merkley said in a statement. “We need to get these flavors off the market.”

Will Bans Work?

England said, “If you ban the flavors, it will kill vape shops,” adding it’s the responsibility of the parents and the sellers of nicotine to not sell to underage kids.

Every vape shop in Kosciusko County that was interviewed for this story say they have strict ID policies. CravinVapes in the Lake Village Shopping Center said they card everyone and if someone walks in on the phone or wants to buy for a friend, they’ve had that person FaceTime someone before and had them hold up their ID.

Phifer said the first thing she asks a young-looking customer when they walk in is how many cigarettes they smoke.

“If they say they don’t, then that’s when I start the lecture: ‘What are you doing here??You think this is cool?’,” she said.

Vape shop owners warn that banning flavors will only lead to purchases from the Internet or black market, claiming people who want them, will find a way to get them.

Also warns Reed: “There’s no quality control on the black market. If anyone is vaping, they need to use common sense.”