Vapes have come under controversy recently after several vape-related illnesses have caused wide-spread fear over the use of the products. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — As concerns about health issues from vaping rise nationwide, the City Council is preparing to vote Oct. 29 on an ordinance to create a 1,000-foot buffer between vape shops and schools and a 300-foot buffer from childcare facilities, community centers and other sensitive use locations.

In light of recent vape-related illnesses across the U.S., one local vape shop owner, however, is defending his business, and claiming that vaping is a safer alternative to traditional tobacco products

“If you really dig into it, it’s the Black market THC cartridges that are causing the problems people are experiencing,” said Anthony Scott, who co-owns Portland Smoke and Vape on Broadway with Chris Jackson, in an interview Oct. 10. “A lot of people transition from cigarettes to vapes.”

Tetrahydrocannibinol, or THC, is an active ingredient in cannabis. Currently, the CDC reports that national data to date on substance use shows most lung injury patients were using THC-containing products with or without nicotine-containing products.

As of Oct. 16, the Maine CDC reported that several people in Maine have experienced lung illnesses related to the use of e-cigarettes. In total, the state has had five cases — four adults, one youth — amid national alarm about the growing health concerns of using vape products. The state CDC has no information on whether the products that recently caused people to get sick were purchased legally.

While no deaths have been reported in Maine, the U.S. CDC reports that 18 deaths have occurred in 10 states, with more than 1,080 lung injuries thought to have been caused by vaping. It said patients being treated report having a history of using e-cigarette products or smoking materials containing THC.

In comparison, the U.S. CDC reports that 480,000 deaths per year are caused by cigarette smoking in the U.S., with more than 41,000 a result of secondhand smoke exposure.

Flavored vape juice has come under scrutiny by people who claim the product is attractive to children and still lead to a dependency. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

“The bottom line is, we don’t know if vaping is a healthier alternative; there is not enough evidence. There are a number of FDA-approved medications with nicotine that are approved for tobacco cessation and we know those work well,” said Dora Mills, the Chief Public Health Improvement Officer of Maine Health.  “The fact they’re inhaled is a concern because your lungs are built to inhale air, so to replace smoke with another product that has not been studied for safety and effectiveness is very concerning.”

The city first began tackling the issue of vaping products in a workshop discussion Feb. 7, but at a May 14 meeting, several business owners, including Justin West of Broadway Variety, said a ban on vape products would unfairly penalize law-abiding members of the community.

City councilors decided to postpone an ordinance at the May meeting that would have prohibited the sale of some flavored tobacco products after Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett said the proposal lacked clarity and definition.

The pre-filled, closed-pod systems under scrutiny are small vapes that use cartridges pre-filled with e-liquid. Common brands include Juul, MyBlue and PHIX. Maine requires people to be at least 21 to purchase vaping and tobacco products.

“Banning products became difficult to clarify, so council decided to just go against it,” City Manager Scott Morelli said in an interview last week. “They have decided to enact a buffer around schools, so tobacco products like vaping devices can’t be sold within a certain distance of schools.”

Portland Smoke and Vape shop owner Anthony Smith said he has seen people stop smoking cigarettes by transitioning to vaping. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Businesses like Portland Smoke and Vape on Broadway, which is across the street and less than 100 feet from Mahoney Middle School, will be grandfathered.

Earlier this month, Gov. Janet Mills directed the Maine CDC to work with the Maine Attorney General’s Office to increase compliance checks on e-cigarette products to prevent sales to youth. The FDA, which announced its intention to tighten regulations Sept. 11, has been discussing the potential for a federal ban on flavored products such as cinnamon, vanilla and fruit.

Scott, the Portland Smoke and Vape owner, said the government shouldn’t be banning the product altogether, suggesting the council should continue to focus on regulations that monitor age-appropriate purchases, such as the upcoming ordinance that puts buffers between sensitive use locations.

“They found something that is causing deaths, and they want to ban it because it’s appealing to children and they think the flavors are enticing,” he said. “Instead of thinking about restrictions that make it more difficult for youth to get, they want to totally wipe them out altogether.”

Scott believes people are fearful because little is still known about the short- and long-term health effects, which officials say are still being studied. He also believes that big tobacco will benefit from a ban on e-cigarettes because it could boost cigarette sales.

“If a vape ban or flavor ban went into place, we would just have to adjust and change the products we sell, but vapes are such a big part of our business,” Scott said. “It’s just too broad … If there’s something bad poisoning everyone at a grocery store, you don’t stop everyone from getting groceries. Why do it with vape products?”

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