The thick vapor clouds that wafted over the steps of the State House one day last week were just a signal of the latest battle over anti-smoking legislation that smoldered inside.
By John C. Ensslin – May 22nd, 2016
The clouds were generated by a group of several dozen vaping enthusiasts who were making the claim that their habit had enabled them to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes while still getting a nicotine hit.
Inside the hearing room, however, members of the Senate health committee — at the urging of public heath advocates who say vaping endangers children — advanced a bill that would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes except for tobacco and menthol flavors.
Other flavors — such as apple pie and peach, carrying names like “Nimbus” and “Jerry’s Berries” — have become the flash point in the debate over the fast-growing vaping business in New Jersey.
In 2009, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to ban the sale of flavored tobacco cigarettes with the exception of menthol and clove.
Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the health committee, said his bill to ban vaping flavors was a logical extension of that earlier legislation.
Vitale said the bill was also prompted by new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show the number of young people smoking tobacco cigarettes has declined while the number of young people who are vaping has soared.
“One of the main draws for kids is the flavor, which is the primary reason we banned flavored tobacco,” Vitale said. “For the very same reasons, I’ve sponsored this bill.”
E-cigarette and vape store owners, however, say the ban will effectively put them out of business, since the bulk of the vaping liquids they sell are the flavors that would be banned.
Adam Mitrani, who owns two stores called Darth Vapor in Riverdale and East Hanover, said non-tobacco flavors make up about 70 percent of his sales.
He described his customer base as “longtime smokers” who range in age from 20 to 50 years old. His stores do not sell traditional tobacco products.
“Both my parents were smokers growing up,” Mitrani said. “I never liked it at all. Finally, they were able to quit which is wonderful.”
Mitrani said his business is for adults only. He contends that the bill, if passed, will not have the intended effect.
“The teenagers and high school kids who are getting this stuff, unless they’re going to an irresponsible shop, can buy this stuff online,” Mitrani said.
“Really all this is going to do is put me out of business if it should pass and make a lot of vapers go back to smoking, which would be a shame,” he added.
Basit Memon opened up Aladdin Glass & Vape Shop in Lodi in 2012 and his since has opened up shops in Paramus, Union and Nanuet.
The business started, he said, after his uncle developed throat cancer. The family-run business still sells some tobacco products but mostly has moved to vaping devices and liquids.
Like Mitrani, Memon said many of his customers had kicked their cigarette habits. And he disputes arguments that vaping serves as a gateway for young people to begin smoking tobacco cigarettes.
“We’re abiding by what the government is telling us to do,” Memon said “If they’re saying that it’s attracting kids, they should enforce it where online sales shouldn’t be allowed.”
But advocates like Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of the Summit-based New Jersey Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy, said even if vaping systems are tar-free, the nicotine and other chemicals they deliver still pose a health risk.
“Studies have shown that using these products can be hazardous to your health,” Blumenfeld said. “Using nicotine long term to replace tobacco use is not recommended.”
Vaping advocates like Gregory Conley of the Hoboken-based American Vaping Association, said many of the young people who are attracted to vaping are more drawn by the flavors and that some don’t use nicotine at all.
Conley estimated there are 300 to 500 vape stores in New Jersey. His website features several testimonials from people who credit their switch to vaping for breaking their cigarette habit.
Angelo Miele, a 60-year-old trucker from East Hanover, said he had not had a cigarette since July 2014, when he bought a set of vaping equipment from Mitrani’s shop.
“I thought I had emphysema,” recalled Miele, who had a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “I was hacking so bad in my house. I couldn’t breathe. I had to go sit out on my porch and suck fresh air.”
A smoker since age 13, Miele said he started with a tobacco-flavored vape and moved on to fruit flavors.
“The thing is, anything you breathe into your lungs is not good,” Miele said. “But I can breathe now. I can walk around the block.”
‘Highway to hell’
Vitale, a former smoker, said he was glad to hear that people like Miele have been able to end their tobacco addiction.
“I don’t argue that there are people who have been able to quit smoking by using electronic cigarettes,” Vitale said. “But I don’t believe that — at the risk of addicting a new generation of young people — we should be allowing flavored juice to be sold.”