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Richard Wesley, owner of Wesley's Vape Shop, holds an example of an "open" vaping system in his right hand and a "closed" system in his left while at his Elkton store Thursday. Wesley owns two shops in Cecil County and one in Havre de Grace.
Richard Wesley, owner of Wesley's Vape Shop, holds an example of an "open" vaping system in his right hand and a "closed" system in his left while at his Elkton store Thursday. Wesley owns two shops in Cecil County and one in Havre de Grace. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Richard Wesley, owner of Wesley’s Vape Shop, holds up two vaping systems: a Drag “open tank” system and a Mylé “closed” system.

The open tanks, which can be filled with vaping liquids known as “juice” that have different levels of nicotine, can be a safer alternative for cigarette smokers who are trying to quit tobacco.

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The closed systems, which can be fitted with disposable pods that each contain the same high level of nicotine, have been a primary driver of a crisis in recent months, in which people who vape have been contracting serious, and in some cases fatal, respiratory illnesses, according to Wesley and his general manager, Collin McIlvried.

"I always state, ‘safer,’ not, ‘safe,’ Wesley, who owns two vape stores in Cecil County and one in Havre de Grace, said of vaping as an alternative to smoking.

Closed systems, which resemble a flash drive or highlighter pen, can be fitted with a disposable pod containing the vaping fluid. McIlvried and Wesley point to those systems as a source of many of the illnesses and deaths related to vaping, as well as teens and young adults getting addicted to vaping.

A number of incidents have been tied to disposable pods that have been adulterated to hold liquid with THC — a primary ingredient in marijuana — and sold on the street, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 1,600 cases of illness nationwide have been linked to e-cigarettes or vaping, as of Tuesday, and there have been 34 deaths around the country, according to the CDC’s website.

“The latest national and state findings suggest products containing THC, particularly those obtained off the street or from other informal sources (e.g. friends, family members, illicit dealers), are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the outbreak,” according to the site.

Dr. Russell Moy, Harford County’s health officer, discussed what has been called a “vaping crisis” with the Harford County Council earlier this month.

A Maryland legislator, Democratic Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County, is preparing legislation for the next General Assembly session, a bill that would ban flavored vaping products in order to prevent young people drawn by fruity or sweet flavors from taking up vaping. Flavored vaping products have already been banned in Michigan, via executive action by the governor, and the FDA is considering an e-cigarette ban on the federal level.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has announced a task force to review how e-cigarettes and vaping affect people and potential changes to regulations.

McIlvried and Wesley said Thursday that they support the task force and have already had in-depth discussions with state officials regarding regulations on their industry — tobacco and nicotine products cannot be sold in Maryland to anyone younger than 21 years old as of Oct. 1, and signs emphasizing the new age restrictions can been seen inside and out at vape shops in Cecil and Harford counties.

The checkout counter at Wesley's Vape Shop in Havre de Grace, seen here Monday, includes several warnings that customers must show identification and be 21 or older to purchase vaping products, in accordance with a new state law that took effect Oct. 1.
The checkout counter at Wesley's Vape Shop in Havre de Grace, seen here Monday, includes several warnings that customers must show identification and be 21 or older to purchase vaping products, in accordance with a new state law that took effect Oct. 1. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“We still, to this day, support regulations without treading on the rights of adult smokers that use these products legitimately,” McIlvried said during an interview at the Wesley’s shop in Elkton Thursday.

Wesley said he took up vaping, based on the recommendation of a relative, after years of smoking cigarettes. He determined, based on his experience and research, that vaping is “less harmful for you” than smoking, and he opened his first vape shop in the Fair Hill area of Cecil County in 2014.

“I wanted to get off of smoking and vaping did it for me, and I wanted to pass that along to the masses,” Wesley said.

He said information put out by government officials and the media soon after people became sick or died from vaping harmful substances has harmed the industry and scared some people who vape enough that they have gone back to tobacco.

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“It’s not the flavors that entice youth,” McIlvried said. “It’s the nicotine buzz from devices that have too high of a nicotine content.”

The general manager said that people can choose liquids that have a lower and lower nicotine content as they refill the tanks on their open devices, to the point that they can taper off nicotine for good. People used to smoking cigarettes seek alternatives to the tobacco flavor because “they want to break that chain,” Wesley added.

People should look for warning and ingredient labels, such as those on this bottle sold by Vape Dojo in Bel Air, to ensure their vaping products are safe, according to manager Eric Bowersox.
People should look for warning and ingredient labels, such as those on this bottle sold by Vape Dojo in Bel Air, to ensure their vaping products are safe, according to manager Eric Bowersox. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Ensuring a safe product

“I’ve seen a lot of my customer base get themselves completely off of analog cigarettes within two or three months” of vaping, Scott Cassidy, manager of the Wesley’s Vape Shop off of Route 40 in Havre de Grace, said.

Vaping liquids, whether “house juices” provided by Wesley’s or juices made by third-party manufacturers, must comply with FDA regulations, he said.

Cassidy said he encourages people to buy their vaping products from reputable retailers, noting many of the cases involving illness or death from vaping happened when people used THC cartridges laced with harmful chemicals.

“When using the proper equipment and using it the proper way, it can be a very viable alternative nicotine delivery system,” Cassidy said.

Eric Bowersox, manager of the Vape Dojo store on North Bond Street in Bel Air, also stressed that the vaping products sold in the store are FDA compliant.

“Anything that’s highly reputable, that’s the ones that we sell,” he said.

Bowersox encourages people to look for ingredient and warning labels on bottles of vaping fluid — he held up one Vape Dojo-brand bottle that had a label on the front warning that nicotine is an addictive substance.

A label on the rear includes a warning that the substance could cause “reproductive harm,” as well as a list of its ingredients, where it was manufactured and other details.

There are vaping liquids available that contain no nicotine, Bowersox noted. He said many Vape Dojo customers have been grateful for products that help them quit smoking.

“They came in looking for a smoking alternative, and we helped them out with vaping,” he said.

Kristofer Reed, a customer at the Wesley’s Vape Shop in Havre de Grace, said he started vaping after smoking for more than 20 years and noted a significant improvement in his health.

“I feel better vaping ... I don’t wake up choking all over the place,” the 43-year-old Rising Sun resident said.

Kristofer Reed, of Rising Sun, exhales a cloud of vapor while visiting Wesley's Vape Shop in Havre de Grace Monday. He says he experiences fewer health issues vaping, compared to when he smoked cigarettes for more than 20 years, although he cautions vaping is not a completely harmless activity.
Kristofer Reed, of Rising Sun, exhales a cloud of vapor while visiting Wesley's Vape Shop in Havre de Grace Monday. He says he experiences fewer health issues vaping, compared to when he smoked cigarettes for more than 20 years, although he cautions vaping is not a completely harmless activity. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford health officer weighs in

Moy, the Harford County health officer, discussed vaping during his fall report to the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, on Oct. 15. Moy said there had been 29 cases of vaping-related illnesses in Maryland to date, with 26 people being hospitalized, but “no deaths as of yet.”

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“Vaping is a serious safety hazard, with accidental poisonings and explosions of the vape pens in the mouth,” Moy said.

He cited an example of an 18-year-old woman who developed acute eosinophilic pneumonia, had to be placed on a ventilator and was in an induced coma for three days. The young woman has since encouraged people not to smoke or vape, Moy said.

Moy said 27.5 percent of high school students in the U.S. have said that they vape in 2019 to date. He warned nicotine can harm teenagers and young adults by damaging parts of the brain which control “attention, learning, mood, memory and impulse control.”

During the 2018-2019 school year, at least 150 students violated Harford County Public Schools’ Tobacco-Free and Inhalant-Free School Environment policy for the first time by vaping, officials said in September.

Harford County’s Local Health Improvement Coalition is preparing a position paper about the risks of vaping and e-cigarettes, Moy said.

“Vaping has become an epidemic, threatening the health and lives of the community,” he said, reading from a draft edition of the statement.

Coalition members recommend that "all persons should refrain from vaping or using e-cigarettes, particularly those containing THC … the active component of marijuana,” according to Moy.

The health officer acknowledged the ongoing debate about vaping, noting that the FDA, thinking of teens, young adults and non-smokers, recommends that people “never vape.” He also said Public Health England, an English government health agency, has found that e-cigarettes are “less harmful” than cigarettes when focusing on harm reduction for smokers.

“What our Local Health Improvement Coalition is saying, is: ‘Something has changed — smoking kills people slowly, but vaping can now kill you fast,’” Moy said.

“Until we figure out what the causative agent is, people should not smoke and they should not vape,” he added.

Moy encouraged people who want to quit smoking to contact the Maryland Tobacco Quitline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, for counseling and nicotine replacement therapy.

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