KAILUA-KONA — Clouds are as common a sight in Waimea as almost anywhere on Hawaii Island. But a particular and ever-more-present sort of plume billowing throughout the region has created some concern among residents there.
Vaping, and the questions surrounding this sometimes scarcely understood smoking alternative, prompted a Waimea Community Association meeting March 1 to peer through the haze surrounding the controversial practice.
The presence of Black Lava Vape, which has operated a location in Kailua-Kona since June 2013 and opened a second space in Waimea in October, has intensified the discussion.
“There is some community concern and that was really kind of what prompted us to have the meeting — because I was getting so many calls,” said Patti Cook, president of the WCA.
The meeting featured a question-and-answer session with multiple panelists, including a health professional, an educator, an anti-smoking advocate, a vape shop owner and others.
Residents voiced several issues including health and addiction concerns, whether the process can lead to smoking of tobacco instead of aiding in smoking cessation, how the products are marketed and the physical location of the outlets — particularly their proximity to schools.
Sean Anderson, who owns both Black Lava locations and intends to open a third in Pahoa, said he was surprised by the level of concern in Waimea, where there remains a level of resistance he didn’t encounter in Kona. While the meeting didn’t resolve community concerns, he said it was an important step toward breaking through what he considers common misconceptions surrounding vaping.
“Immediately the thing that I understood was people didn’t understand,” Anderson said. “There was a lack of understanding about what we do and what vaping is.”
Pushback isn’t reserved only for Waimea.
A bill to regulate the location of vape shops is making its way through the Legislature. Hawaii has some of the toughest smoking and vaping laws on the books and as of now does not delineate between smoking and vaping in matters of policy.
Robert Anthony, a longtime smoker who turned to vaping two years ago, said the switch helped him leave behind his pack-a-day smoking habit.
“Eventually you don’t even need (smoking),” he said. “Right off the bat, about a month in, you notice you start breathing better.”
Sally Ancheta, East Hawaii community coordinator working with the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii under the umbrella of the Hawaii Public Health Institute, sat next to Anderson on the WCA panel and provided a different take on the role of vaping in regards to public health.
“Vaping is picking up where smoking left off,” Ancheta wrote in a message to West Hawaii Today. “They are not the same, they are different, but the big similarity: they’re both harmful.”
Ancheta referenced the presence of the flavoring additive diacetyl in 47 of 51 vape juices that were part of a Harvard study in 2015, a chemical known to cause “popcorn lung,” which according to the American Lung Association, is “a scarring of the tiny air sacs in the lungs, resulting in the thickening and narrowing of the airways.”
“If you vape, you’re not necessarily going to get (popcorn lung),” Ancheta said. “But there is potential.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website that vaping aerosols also contain carcinogens and volatile organic compounds. And, of course, they contain nicotine, which the ACS says is dangerous to youth in any form, as it might impact brain development and is an addictive substance.
Still, in terms of smoking cessation, major health agencies around the world are advocating publicly for vaping over traditional tobacco use.
A generation of vapers
While more research must be done to make conclusive statements, Ancheta said one trend is clear — Hawaii youth are engaged in vaping at increasingly high rates.
“This generation is our case study,” she said.
Hawaii e-cigarette law is as stringent as it gets.
The state disallows vaping in any area where smoking is prohibited, such as in parks or at beaches, and has upped the legal purchase age for vaping products to 21. But that doesn’t appear to have curbed the practice among Hawaii’s youth.
According to data provided by Ancheta, Youth Risk Behavior Surveys have shown youth usage rates of electronic smoking devices have reached 22 percent on Oahu and top 30 percent on all neighbor islands, with the highest number registering on the Big Island at 34.1 percent. Hawaii Island also leads usage rates specific to middle-schoolers at 23 percent.
Danny Garcia, principal at Kohala Elementary School and a member of the panel in Waimea, recounted an incident in which he suspended two fifth-graders who were caught vaping in the school’s bathroom.
Ancheta thinks part of the problem is how the products are marketed to youth, “as a hobby or a lifestyle,” or even to their parents, some of whom have been known to purchase vaping products for their teenage children.
“We do take issue with sales tactics (and) point to multiple e-juice flavors that look and sound just like candy for kids,” Ancheta said. “They perpetuate the ‘safer and cleaner’ alternative, minimizing any health risks whatsoever and capitalize on vaping as a lifestyle philosophy.”
Anderson took issue with the notion that his shops, or any vape shops of which he’s aware, are misrepresenting their products or using flavoring as allure to bolster sales.
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