How Steep Is the E-Cig Learning Curve?

The FDA should rethink its vilification of convenience stores
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CHICAGO -- The high school campus my son attends has had a “resource officer” for years. This officer, an employee of the local police department, is there to interact with students and assist in times of trouble.

The job had traditionally been part time, but the campus recently increased the role to a full-time position. While the district has discussed making the change for years, the current need for “an added layer of security,” as the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune, made now the appropriate time to do it.

So what could have tipped the scales? School shootings? Gang activity? Drugs? Actually, none of the above. The newspaper story mentions only one factor: vaping.

“I think that continuing to stress that these devices do contain harmful chemicals, such as aerosols and nicotine, will hopefully deter any further use,” the resource officer said.

Release the Hounds

Vaping has been a concern in this school district for the past couple of years. My son has told me of students stealing a puff from their devices anytime a teacher stepped out of the classroom.

During the 2017-2018 school year, more than 50 students in the district were caught with e-cigarettes, according to the Tribune. It was enough to convince the local village board to make e-cigarette possession by a minor an ordinance violation with a fine of up to $750.

As a parent, I support the move. Teenagers face enough challenges without being saddled with a potential addiction and the related costs.

But as an advocate of convenience retailing, I must protest how this industry has become a scapegoat for underage vaping, even though there’s still so much we don’t know about the customer base and the products. Yes, nicotine is proven addictive. But the lack of research into what else comes out of a vape pen and its possible harm is dragging these products too far into the sin category. That’s what made Scott Gottlieb’s appointment as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration back in May 2017 seem like the first step in getting e-cigarettes figured out.

Gottlieb came out of the gate as a supporter of e-cigs, for their potential to give smokers a safer way to get a nicotine fix. He called for research to support reduced-harm claims for e-cigarettes and vaping products. It’s all admirable, but so far we’ve seen few official results and heard lots of conjecture.

A Punch in the Gut

In the meantime, e-cigarettes have become the go-to status symbol for teenagers—an “epidemic,” Gottlieb declared it—and one he blames on two things: candy-flavored vape pods (fair) and convenience-store retailers with lax carding practices (a low blow).

“A lot of the sales that we’ve seen going to minors are actually happening in the brick-and-mortar stores, the convenience stores,” he told CNBC in October.

The truth is, more beer, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and, yes, e-cigs are sold in convenience stores than in any other channel. As a result, c-stores in general spend as much or more time training their employees to check IDs than other channels of retail.

As Tom Briant, executive director of NATO, said in a column on CSPDailyNews.com, 96.7% of retailers last summer passed FDA-sponsored compliance checks by not selling an e-cigarette to an underage youth. But because they own the largest share of the category, c-stores also will have the largest issues with controlling age-restricted products.

If the alternative, as Gottlieb suggests, is restricting e-cigarette sales to other channels of retail, including the internet, I’ll paraphrase one social-media post I read on the subject: Good luck keeping anything sold online out of the hands of children.

Steve Holtz is content director of Winsight’s Convenience Group. Reach him at sholtz@winsightmedia.com.

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