ATLANTA — Lisa Gano, former Georgia teacher and owner of VapeRite, said her husband used to smoke two to three packs of cigarettes a day.
He tried everything to quit, she said, but when he picked up vaping, she saw him quit cigarettes that day.
“Adults need that choice, to stay away from cigarettes,” Gano said. “So they’re not one of the casualties.”
Pro-vape and anti-vape advocates are fighting the same battle, she said.
Georgia officials have waged war on teen vaping, but researchers and vape shop owners who have witnessed nicotine addiction first hand are saying smokers need vaping to quit tobacco.
Researchers against stricter e-cigarette laws also said it’s not a “stand-alone” problem like it’s being portrayed.
The House Health and Human Services committee heard testimony against the crack down on vaping, contrasting the health warnings from health officials about the teen vaping.
In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is leading the nationwide call to research the health effects of e-cigarettes and vaping, reporting the first deaths connected to use.
But researchers argued that what is being called an “epidemic” is nothing when compared to rates of teen binge drinking, distracted driving, marijuana use, carrying a weapon and other high-risk activities.
“This teen vaping epidemic has been portrayed as a brand new, self-standing epidemic,” Brad Rodu, professor at the University of Louisville, said, “when it’s really tied to other experimental behaviors including smoking and using other tobacco products.”
Rodu is currently the head of Tobacco Harm Reduction Research and a senior scientist at the university’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.
One of the arguments against vaping is that it is a gateway drug-use method.
But, out of 2.5 million underaged vapors in the U.S. — according to CDC data — Rodu said, 1.7 million had already or currently used tobacco products.
Rodu said states are blaming retailers for the problem when Federal Drug Administration surveys have indicated 90% of teens who vape get tobacco from indirect social supply chains like older friends or family members.
Other misconceptions surrounding vaping that are being perpetuated in the media, he said, is that it contains toxic chemicals, potion children through second-hand consumption and it doesn’t help smokers quit cigarette use.
Rodu argued e-cigarettes and vapes include minimal traces of harmful toxins and other everyday items such as makeup and household cleaners are poisoning children at nearly 20 times the amount e-cigarettes are.
The tobacco research community, Rodu said, has upheld that vaping is safer than smoking.
Lawmakers are not convinced.
Gov. Brian Kemp in hand with health officials released a health advisory on vaping as the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has identified two cases of vaping-related deaths.
Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, argued that artificial flavors in vapes may be safe to eat, but there isn’t research on whether or not they are safe on the respiratory system when inhaled.
“The concern is...that the flavorings create a potential hazard that was not originally in the product because of the heating and there is limited to no data on the health affects associated with the 7,000 flavors.”
Rodu agreed that both the liquid and the vapor produced from vapes need to be tested for harmful chemicals.
“It seems a little bit premature since the public is being the guinea pig, especially our kids, to say vaping is safer than cigarettes,” Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the committee. “It just seems like to me this is a whole lot of uncharted territory. But, that’s my personal opinion after listening that, there’s just so much that we don’t know and the medical model is first do no harm and that means move with caution.”
Especially with young people, she said, who could be affected the rest of their lives.
There are 480,000 dead smokers every year in this country, Rodu said, that’s 1,300 people every day for the 25 years he has been researching tobacco use. This fact is what needs to be used as context in the vaping conversation, he said.
“We know that millions of people have already quit smoking with vape products,” Rodu said. “Yes, it is unknown what their long-term risks are, but we know this for a fact they are no longer exposed to smoke. That’s the perspective that I would try to add.”
Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, likened vapes and e-cigarettes to chemically contaminated food on grocery store shelves.
“We would be pulling those products off the shelf immediately,” Schofield said, “Here’s what I don’t understand is why when we don’t have enough evidence, why are we continuing to use this vulnerable population as guinea pigs for ‘let’s figure it out.’ I am concerned about that.”
Comments from the committee displayed clear bipartisan opposition to teen vaping overall. Vape shop owners testified that they are all on the same side — to keep potentially dangerous drugs out of the hands of youth and fight “big tobacco” companies.
“The truth of the matter is, if any of you don’t smoke, I don’t need to see you in my shop,” Keith Gossett, Columbus vape shop owner said. “I am there to help smokers, that’s what I’m there for. I know that this product works because I am a 45-year long smoker.”
Vape shop owners, he said, go “above and beyond” keeping products out of the hands of children.
Gossett was a nicotine smoker for over 45 years and was desperate to quit when his wife was diagnosed with lung disease and came home from the hospital with an oxygen tank.
Speakers flooded the committee with stories of medical conditions and addiction being won with the use of e-cigarettes. Gossett’s story matches the bulk of the other testimonies of quitting cigarette use with the use of a vape.
“From the very first hit off of one of these devices, I left cigarettes,” Gossett told lawmakers, “I haven’t smoked a cigarette from my very first draw.”
Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville, took time to remind the committee that Georgia is facing two different battles: keeping harmful products out of the hands of kids and helping adults suffering from addiction.
“If you’re an addict, you’re an addict, you’re an addict...” Hutchinson said. "We need to keep in mind we are talking about addiction, we’re not just talking about recreational use...I think that conversation has been missing this far.”