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The Vaping Industry Categorizes and Targets Users. Is Lane County An Exception?

Elizabeth Gabriel

As the number of vape deaths continues to rise—two of which were in Oregon—the future of vaping concerns many Oregonians. But were certain groups targeted to begin vaping the first place?

According to Lane County Public Health, the vape industry is borrowing tactics from the tobacco industry and targeting low income individuals. Public Information Officer for Lane County Health & Human Services, Jason Davis, said it’s important to note the difference between the tobacco industry and local vape stores.  

“They send out the marketing materials—with instructions—and the local retailers do it because that’s part of their agreement, and then perpetuate it,” said Davis. “But it’s not necessarily our local retailers are really trying to prey on anybody or worsen our community. This is more of a systemic problem that starts with the big corporations that are not even based in Oregon, then carries through.”

Given America’s history with tobacco, Davis said the public shouldn’t be surprised this is happening with vaping.

For example, the first use of menthol cigarettes in the 1920s provided a cooling effect on someone’s throat when they smoked and reduced their amount of coughing. Davis said this led to people who were opposed to the coughing side effect of normal cigarettes to use menthol cigarettes. Now, we’re seeing similar trends with menthol vaping.

“It provided a way—a mechanism—to get addicted faster because you’re not being encountered with those unpleasant side effects from smoking immediately,” said Davis. “Which is exactly what vaping does. Vaping eliminates some of those unpleasant side effects that you get when you first start smoking. The odor, the cough, the burning sensation—those things, which allows a vehicle to addiction.”

According to Davis, low income individuals in Eugene are using tobacco at a higher rate. Approximately 21% of adults use tobacco in Lane County.

Public Health measures low income residents by surveying Oregon Health Plan (OHP) recipients. Davis said these 25,000 to 35,000 patients—one-third of Lane County—are only eligible for those benefits if they are low income. Although the specific amount of low income vape users is unknown, Davis said the amount of tobacco usage among OHP recipients is 31%.

Credit Lane County Public Health
Lane County Tobacco Fact Sheet, 2019

Davis said there’s nothing inherent about a low income individual that would make them vape more. But the way the tobacco and vape industries market to intentionally target this group by reducing prices through discounts, such as coupons and multi-pack offers, people are more likely to buy vape products.

In Oregon, 34% of tobacco users are Native American, 24% are black, and 20% white. Davis also said someone’s ethnicity and economic status can contribute to whether or not the vaping industry markets products in specific communities.

“If you’re able to walk from your home and spend less than a few minutes walking to a store, walk in, buy a pack cigarettes, have that pack of cigarettes or that vape pen be at a discounted price—and cheaper than you would if you were in a different part of the town—what are you going to do?,” asked Davis. “It’s easy, it’s accessible. That encourages use.”

Public Health also looked at the correlations between tobacco sales and stores that have Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In Lane County, 78% of stores that accept food stamps also sell tobacco. This is 4% higher than the amount of state tobacco retailers that accept SNAP.

Credit Lane County Public Health
Lane County Tobacco Fact Sheet, 2019

“78%—almost 80% of all the stores that accept food stamps for low income individuals also sell tobacco,” said Davis. “So where are you going to go to spend your food stamps? Somewhere that accepts them. If tobacco’s also there, then that’s more accessible.”

23-year-old Michael Steele has been smoking for the past 11 years and identifies as low income. He picked up vaping about six months ago to help quit the nicotine habit.

“I’ve been cutting back from—cutting down on milligrams of nicotine. Started at like 25, now I’m only at three,” said Steele. “And then the next goal in the next few weeks is [to] go down to zero and then stop doing it altogether.”

As of 2018, the Truth Initiative reported that nearly 65% of young menthol smokers said they would quit if menthol cigarettes were banned. Davis says flavors are the vehicles for usage, and it’s likely people would be less tempted to vape if flavors were not accessible. But that doesn’t mean current vape users would quit. Due to an already established addiction, vape users could possibly lean toward other tobacco products such as cigarettes—or their cheaper brother—cigarillos.

Due to the nationwide vaping illnesses, Governor Kate Brown has attempted to enact a temporary statewide ban of flavored vape products. So although he’s on the way to stopping, Steele says he doesn’t approve of the state’s endeavors.

“To say that somebody can’t use an e-cig, all that’s going to do is drive the tobacco industry—fuel the tobacco industry and make more people smoke cigarettes because they can’t smoke their vapes anymore,” said Steele. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the nationwide vape illnesses and deaths could be tied to black market THC cartridges. To this point, Steele says a ban that completely cuts out something that is making people feel heathier is a backwards way of fixing the larger nicotine problem in America.

“I can see how it’s frustrating that sometimes it feels like certain specific people are being targeted, but the tobacco industry has been targeting literally everyone for over 100 years now,” said Steele. “Companies like Altria and Marlboro and stuff like that have really targeted people and in the 60s, 70s, and 80s they were specifically targeting low income [and] children.”

Davis said that 80% of Lane County residents that smoke said they want to quit. He believes Senator Ron Wyden’s plan to tax e-cigarettes will decrease the amount of low income vape users over time.

“People have to prioritize,” said Davis. “They have to prioritize things like groceries. And eventually, you start to price out tobacco.”

Davis said Public Health is working to keep the amount of Lane County smoking rates low, while also reducing the amount of vaping.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.
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