It is hard to separate American history from the smell of tobacco smoke. The first English colonists in Jamestown grew tobacco as a cash crop and more than two hundred years later, smoking remains a hundred billion dollar industry today. Over the course of the last decade, though, nicotine habits are becoming increasingly separated from that smell of smoke. Vaping has seen rapid growth as more and more smokers turn to it as a means of reducing their risk of cancer and an aid to kicking the habit. Regulations at the state and federal level could hamper or halt this process, though. This is where the The Vapor Technology Association (VTA) steps in.
The VTA is a trade organization for the vaping industry. Since its January 2016 launch, the VTA has grown to include around 600 members, who represent all levels of the vaping industry, from device and liquid manufacturers and wholesalers to the estimated 9,000-10,000 small businesses selling vaping products around the country.
“It’s a privilege for me to be working in this space because real entrepreneurs and real innovators are trying to help people and you actually see then from the consumer side that incredible reaction, which is powerful,” says Tony Abboud, VTA’s executive director.
The vaping industry is remarkable in that it is an example of how innovation can disrupt even a well-established industry.
“This is the first time you have had a vertically-integrated distribution chain grow up and stand independent of the traditional tobacco distribution chain,” says Abboud, who explains that while the major tobacco companies are involved in the industry and sell vaping productions, by no means do they control the market. Instead, a whole industry has grown up outside of this framework.
As the industry has grown, however, regulators at both the state and federal level have begun moving into the space. VTA was formed in part to allow the industry to better weigh in on this process, helping to develop rational regulations that understand the differences between smoking and vaping, and how vaping can be a way to help smokers quit.
Overseas, particularly in Britain, doctors have promoted vaping as a safer alternative to smoking and a means of helping adult smokers to quit. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the industry has struggled against accusations that flavored vapes will tempt teens to try tobacco.
This was a key topic of discussion at a January meeting VTA had with the Food and Drug Administration. At the meeting, the VTA stressed that the claim that flavors were an attraction for youth was a red herring.
“We demonstrated to them, using the government’s own numbers, that vaping [among youth] has gone down,” Abboud said. “If you look at the press releases issued late last week by [various senators,] they talk about this supposedly skyrocketing increase in youth using vapor products, and they always cite the period from 2011 to 2015 and it begs the question of why they ignore the CDC’s 2016 data and the past statistics which show that it turned downwards, finally.”
“They aren’t talking about that because it doesn’t fit their narrative,” he continued.
Because of these statistics, the VTA is pushing to make sure that regulation does not hurt the industry and smokers trying to quit. Abboud acknowledges that a core concern is marketing. Although flavored tobacco has existed for many years, there are concerns that the marketing for vapes would make these elements more attractive to underage users.
In response, the VTA drafted a set of marketing guidelines to emphasize its commitment to preventing youth use. These include labels saying “not for youth use” and guidelines instructing vape shop owners not to allow unaccompanied minors to loiter in their shops.
Restricting the industry could have major consequences for public health, says Abboud, who points out that while the number of smokers in the U.S. has plateaued since 2010, the number didn’t begin to decrease until vaping became more popular. Now the industry is trying to build on that momentum, in part by pushing states to treat the industry as something different from traditional smoking. This includes allowing people to use vapes outside of smoking areas. Right now, some states are pushing for laws that would require vape users, including those trying to stop smoking, to stand in the same spaces as smokers.
“You would never take, for example, someone who is a recovering alcoholic, and force them to sit in a bar to drink their water or their coke. You would not tempt them that way, but that is what these policies are doing,” says Abboud.
In an effort to stop these and similar laws, the VTA has worked to develop industry groups at the state level and now has an operating presence in 22 states.
“This has the potential to be the most significant public health benefit that we’ve seen in a generation,” he concludes.
All it takes is the right regulations.