Vape shop owner calls for crackdown on black-market vape products

Georgia and Florida among the states where vape-related illnesses reported

By Lauren Verno - Consumer investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Georgia is now the latest state to report vaping related illnesses, joining several other states with confirmed reports of illnesses linked to the popular alternative to smoking.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 450 cases of the mysterious illness, which has already been reported in Florida. There are also five confirmed deaths in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Oregon. The cause of the epidemic remains unclear.

But the lack of specifics associated with this illness is putting businesses that sell vape products on their heels as they grapple with public perception. Ernesto Fragoso, who owns New Start Vapor Company in Jacksonville, believes in the products he sells and stands behind them.

"I really want people to know that vape shops and the e-liquids that are on the shelf, the devices that are in the cases -- those are legal, FDA-approved devices that are tested," he said. "And the stuff that is causing the lung issues out on the street is not coming from vape shops."

Fragoso, who uses vape products daily, invited News4Jax Consumer Investigator Lauren Verno into his store on Tuesday to learn more about vaping. "Every single day we get a new customer in trying to quit smoking, trying to quit dipping and it’s really satisfying to help somebody quit," he said.

While the CDC's investigation into these illnesses has not singled out any substance or product, many of the patients who reported getting sick said they vaped THC, or the active chemical in cannabis products. Unless it's legal or purchased from a dispensary, it can only be bought off the streets.

"Vaping black market products is not safe and should not be a thing," Fragoso told News4Jax. "There needs to be more enforcement to get these products off the streets."

The products Fragoso sells only contain flavor and nicotine. But even nicotine has come under fire. The FDA, for instance, has warned the makers of Juul, the largest distributor of e-cigarettes, telling the company to stop promoting its pods as less harmful than cigarettes.

One Juul pod is reported to contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of 20 cigarettes. The company is owned in part by Altria, which produces Marlboro brand cigarettes. Juuls accounted for three quarters of the electronic cigarette market in 2018 alone.

"Juul is Juul," said Fragoso. "It’s partly owned by big tobacco, no one knows their agenda, and I know the rest of the vaping industry knows what they’re doing."

The ongoing investigation aside, the CDC says that youth and young adults do not use e-cigarette products of any kind. It also warns adults who do not use tobacco to start using e-cigarette products.

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