Local vaping store sees an industry under fire

David Gearhart, owner of High Tides Vapes in Crescent City, is surrounded by flavored nicotine bottles as he shows a CBD oil made from the hemp plant often counterfeited on the black market, causing it to be labeled an unsafe product. Photo by David Hayes.

Posters on the walls of David Gearhart’s store High Tide Vapes at 1329 Northcrest Dr. clearly prohibit the sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 21.

But Gearheart sees the handwriting on the wall for the entire vaping industry, as public health concerns grow at all levels of government. “In the last four days, I’ve had a drop in business of 40%,” Gearheart said last week.

“I could be out of business in three weeks after the feds implement a ban.”

Gearheart, who said he brought the only vaping store to Crescent City five and a half years ago, fears a Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) plan to clear the market of unauthorized, non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products.

“Getting rid of the vaping business is the wrong attitude. They need to control it better,” Gearheart said.

Just Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined a growing number of government executives taking what actions they can via the pen. He signed an executive order directing the state Department of Public Health to launch a $20-million public-awareness campaign about the health risks of vaping nicotine and cannabis products.

Said Newsom in a press release, “As a parent, I understand the anxiety caused by the deceptive marketing tactics and flavored options designed to target our kids. With mysterious lung illnesses and deaths on the rise, we have to educate our kids and do everything we can to tackle this crisis.”

Calls for governmental intervention began earlier this summer, spurred by a growing number of potential cases of lung disease among people, especially youths, with a recent history of e-cigarette use.

The County of Del Norte Department of Health and Human Services joined that call for public caution, even though no local cases have been reported.

Amber Wier, health education coordinator for Del Norte HHS, said she has several concerns regarding e-cigarette use, “obviously, the first being the severe lung disease associated with e-cigarette use. 

The (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) reports 380 confirmed and probable cases, in 36 states, of lung disease associated with e-cigarette or vaping use, with six confirmed deaths,” Wier said via email. 

She said Del Norte County's Public Health Officer recommends people refrain from using e-cigarette products (especially products with THC and other cannabinoids) while the CDC’s investigation is ongoing, and that e-cigarette users who have recently used cannabis products and are experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, or chest pain promptly seek medical attention. 

Wier said her second-biggest concern is the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes among youths due to the cigarettes’ increasing potency over the last few years. “Some of them are now six times the nicotine concentration of the first-generation e-cig,” she wrote. “These high doses of nicotine on the developing brain can actually rewire the brain, putting kids at risk for developing substance addiction. 

“Nicotine changes the teen brain and affects attention, learning and memory. These changes to the brain from nicotine can be permanent,” Wier wrote.

Store-owner Gearhart said the biggest offender among high-nicotine systems is Juul, which he said can deliver 50 milligrams of nicotine, compared to 12 in a regular tobacco cigarette. That’s why, he said, he won’t sell Juul products in his store.

Website Wikipedia says Juul “packages nicotine salts from leaf tobacco into one-time-use cartridges.”

“Kids are using that in high school because they’re getting that ‘nicotine high,’ said Gearhart. “We never got a nicotine high from cigarettes, growing up.”

Wier added that statistics show nearly 90% of adult smokers began smoking before age 21. She pointed to a 2018 California Healthy Kids Survey that showed a rise in Del Norte County 11th-graders’ e-cigarette usage rates.

Wier said an enormous array of flavors delivered by a discrete inhaler contribute to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among youth. “Common fruity flavors, like mango to weird things like Unicorn Poop and Grand Poobah, make it appealing, especially to youth,” Wier wrote.

“We know that 80% of kids who start using tobacco or nicotine products start by using a flavored product.” 

That’s why the FDA is considering changing its regulations regarding flavored e-cigarettes. While not calling for an outright ban on flavors, the FDA is pondering severely limiting their sale.

Gearhart disagrees that e-cigarettes lead to traditional tobacco use. As a tobacco cigarette smoker for more than 40 years, Gearhart said, he and most of his customers never go back once they switch to vaping.

The key to solve underage vaping, he said, is banning sales online and through the mail, thus forcing customers to come to a reputed store like his that is required to be licensed, guaranteeing only safe products are sold.

“You can’t govern kids. They’re getting it somewhere,” he said. “They’re sure not getting it out of my store.”

Gearhart said the government’s zeal to tackle the issue with bans will do little more than create a prohibition environment that drives youths to the very illicit market public officials are trying to eliminate.

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