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US Convenience Stores to Age Screen for E-Cigs

A major US convenience store trade group now favors a ban on e-cig sale to minors. This is a very significant development, as it could go a long way toward allaying public fears of the intent of the e-cig industry to hook youngsters on nicotine.

The suspicion of anti-vaping activists that the e-cig industry as a whole opposes bans on sale to minors is quite simply false. On the contrary, the industry overwhelmingly supports those bans, in the face of delays on the part of the FDA and outright opposition to state-level bans on the part of health advocacy groups. Convenience stores, including service stations, have been the weak link in this chain. Although they consititute the largest retail outlet for the product, they have no particular self-interest in refraining from sale to minors, unless of course the government orders it. So youths wishing to buy e-cigs may well see the local convenience store or service station as their best bet. The other big marketing outlets for e-cigarettes, the Internet and vape shops, already have age-checking policies in place or in development. Virtually all vape shops routinely screen customers for age verification, and do not sell to minors, if they even let them into the shop. Vape shops are small businesses, and they know that their survival depends on eventual public acceptance of their product. They are very eager to keep their noses clean in this matter, and by and large they police themselves effectively. The Internet is a bit stickier. All sales websites for e-cigs have age verification portals – they ask users if they are over 18 – that's about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.

But it is possible to demand age verification upon checkout for an Internet purchase, and such procedures may have to be developed in order to forestall regulatory bans on Internet sales. For a convenience store trade group to come out in favor of an across-the-boards ban on sale of e-cigarettes to minors represents a signal shift, and one hopes the FDA and the OMB (the presidential agency currently reviewing proposed regulations reportedly submitted to them by the FDA) are watching. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) has put forward such a ban as a "best practice", which is to say they strongly recommend it to their members, without making it an actual requirement. As to the oft-repeated charge that e-cig advertising is targeting underage customers specifically and intentionally, it is vague and ephemeral. First, it is based on the fact that e-cigs come in flavors, some of which are sweet, resembling candy. Of course, adult vapers like the sweet flavors too, and there is no way to substantiate the claim that the move toward flavors is a strategy aimed at hooking youths on nicotine. More often than not, the candy flavored liquids are nicotine free.

One Long Beach CA vape shop says that half it's liquid sales are 0% nicotine. If the move toward flavors is allied with a move away from nicotine, it represents a health benefit. The other grounds cited for believing that e-cig companies are targeting children is that the advertising of the product is said to be youth oriented. The specifics listed in support of this charge are that attractive young media figures are presented using the product and giving testimonials for it, and that humor is used, sometimes with animated figures. It is said that e-cig advertisers "are reviving the decades-old marketing tactics the tobacco industry used to hook generations of Americans on regular smokes." That is to say, they are using slick, effective advertising techniques. Where is the surprise or shame in that? There is nothing youth-specific in these advertising techniques. The aim of advertising is to make one's product look appealing.

Cigarette advertising in the 20th century is a signal example of the most dazzlingly effective advertising ever, and it is horribly tragic that what it sold so skillfully was poison. And it is a grave moral burden that those advertisers incurred when they lied about that fact. But that does not impugn the advertising techniques themselves, especially when they are used to sell an antidote to poison. Kids like to vape because they think it looks cool. Not because they want a nicotine fix – you can chew gum for that! Not because they want candy – go buy a candy bar! They think it looks cool, and that is a primary motivation for youth trends. At first, people thought personal vaporizers looked dorky. You can find any number of statements from several years ago saying that vapers looked silly unless they were using a cigalike. That has passed – now they are cooler than cool – cooler than lethal smokes.

The real data from the recent CDC study of e-cig use among youth, along with their youth smoking statistics, begin to suggest that e-cigs are an exit gate from smoking for youngsters, not a gateway. E-cig use is dramatically up, cigarette use continues a downward slide. What kind of gateway is that? The reporting of the study baldly stated the opposite, claiming with no basis in fact that e-cigs are a proven smoking gateway, but people are starting to see the deceit. To say that the study shows e-cigs to be a gateway instead of an exit path is simply a falsehood, a fretful fantasy stated as proven scientific fact (by people who should know better), when the very data of the study under discussion point tentatively in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, there needs to be a ban on e-cig sale to minors, if only to calm public fears, and the entire industry supports that. It is good to welcome the National Association of Convenience Stores on board.

Now if we can only start lobbying them to favor e-cigs offered by independents (non-Big-Tobacco), instead of the ones produced by the new bully on the block, Big Tobacco!