Lately, more people are getting their nicotine fix in public. At the bus stop, at your neighborhood bar, or even in the front rows of fashion week, people are no longer ashamed or shunned for pulling out their cigarettes. No, not those stinky, smoke-emitting cancer sticks of the past. Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigs) are allowing people to enjoy their vice almost anywhere rather than being relegated to the smoking area. The fledgling industry has been around since 2006, but in the past few years sales of e-cigs have soared thanks to marketing that promotes them both as more convenient and healthier than traditional cigarettes. However, with popularity comes scrutiny, and there is now a rush to legislate—and in some cases ban—these popular new accessories. How is cannabis getting tied up in this? The two industries face similar challenges when it comes to legislation, but they are addressing them in completely different ways.
E-cigarettes are portable vaporizers that contain no actual tobacco, but instead vaporize liquid nicotine for users to inhale. The fact that there is no smoke contributes greatly to makers’ health claims and allows them to be used anywhere. Many cannabis consumers are familiar with portable vaporizers since they’ve been around even longer than e-cigs. But recent leaps in the technology of vaporizers have led to a similar jump in popularity and an intersection between the markets; there are YouTube videos showing how to hack e-cigs so they can be used for cannabis, and there are now even models that were developed to be used with either option. The result is growing concern that people vaping in public may actually be using cannabis, not nicotine. Additionally, since the e-cigarette market is largely unregulated, critics are especially worried about how easy they are for kids to get.
The lack of tobacco in e-cigarettes is a handy little technicality that has allowed the device’s manufacturers to sidestep the strict regulations of the cigarette industry. Earlier this year a California bill tried to recategorize e-cigs as tobacco products, but it was eventually tabled. Like cannabis, e-cigs currently exist in a gray area of legality. More than 20 states have banned the sale of e-cigs to minors, but many don’t card for them and thanks to the regulation gaps, they can be easily purchased online. All you need is a credit card and you can have a box of liquid nicotine goodness in flavors ranging from mint to bubblegum dropped at your door. While it would be nice to think that kids aren’t buying them, the numbers show they are. In 2012, the percentage of middle and high school students who had tried an e-cigarette more than doubled, rising from 3 to 7%; that amounts to about 1.8 million students. Of course, NATO (not that one, but the National Association of Tobacco Outlets) thinks the CDC study blows the numbers out of proportion since it includes teens who just tried e-cigarettes, even once.
Many e-cigarettes can be used for cannabis oils, meaning the “what about the children” criers are getting fully involved in this issue. “Do you want to see a 15-year-old with a vaporizer making like he has an e-cigarette but there’s grass in it, the liquid version of marijuana?” Massachusetts State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez recently said. Sanchez is the author of a bill that prohibits the sale of the devices to minors and also adds e-cigs to public smoking bans. While someone should probably update him on his slang terms (really, “grass” is the liquid version of marijuana?), he raises legitimate concerns about underage access and the fact that e-cigs and portable vaporizers often look so much alike that it can be near impossible to tell who’s using what. Many states and businesses have added their own regulations, leading to a patchwork of market rules that’s starting to look about as varied as the cannabis one. New Jersey already bans the use of “electronic smoking devices” in indoor public spaces, and New York is considering restrictive proposals that would limit all flavors but tobacco and menthol to specialty tobacco bars.
When it comes to legislation, the difference between the cannabis and e-cigarette industries is that the former is desperate for regulations while the latter is doing everything it can to avoid them. There are many different viewpoints, but the vast majority of those in the cannabis industry seek regulation because they know that it will add standards and legitimacy to their business. But many e-cigarette makers and consumers see attempts to regulate e-cigarettes as just a way to take away their newfound freedoms and get them hooked on smoking again. Some even have a conspiratorial air about a “war” against their personal freedoms. There may well be some truth that the choice to use e-cigs in public is a personal freedom, but consumers should know there’s no way they’ll escape eventual regulation, especially when there’s money to be made; the e-cig market is predicted to net $1 billion this year and up to $10 billion within 10 years. Ties to cannabis vaporizers may eventually hurt their “convenience” selling point, too; while Americans are becoming more accepting of cannabis use, they aren’t quite ready for people to be vaping in public.
If the argument is really that e-cigarettes are healthier than traditional ones, then regulation might be the way to offer some proof of that. The cannabis industry has suffered from the same “no rules” production issues, but in many cases, manufacturers and dispensaries are adopting their own strict standards, often modeled after the FDA’s, to make sure they are taken seriously. The extra scrutiny that cannabusinesses are receiving also means there is a high priority on only providing safe, uncontaminated oils to patients and consumers. The FDA has been asked to come up with rules about e-cigarettes since 2009, but the recent numbers about teen use and safety have led to several groups pushing for standards by next month.
Can these two separate industries actually help one another? They have certainly both been essential in creating the higher functioning, sleek portable vaporizers that are on the market today. Both could use similar advanced testing methods to come up with standards and support legislation that would help keep their products out of kids’ hands. But it’s an unlikely partnership; manufacturers of e-cigarettes don’t want to be connected with the “illegal drug” stigma of cannabis, and cannabis doesn’t want to be associated with the dirty industry tactics or negative health effects of tobacco, whether or not e-cigs can actually be classified that way.