Suffolk Closeup: Battle joined on vaping

“Vaping is an example of big business and profits,” said Dr. William Spencer (D-Centerport) last week. He is the first physician to serve in the Suffolk County Legislature.

At long last, 50 years ago, there came a broad societal realization that cigarettes are a major cause of cancer and other diseases, so “Big Tobacco had to repackage nicotine addiction, it needed a replacement for smoking cigarettes,” said Dr. Spencer in an interview last week.

So vaping was developed with “a narrative that this could be a device for people to quit smoking, that it was safe,” he added. “The claim: Cigarettes involve 600 chemicals and vaping 50, so it must be safer.”

It turns out, said Dr. Spencer, that “vaping is not safer and it probably is more dangerous than smoking. It’s not the number of chemicals but their toxicity.”

As a Suffolk County legislator, Dr. Spencer — chair of its Health Committee — has been the leader in Suffolk in taking on and restricting vaping.

In observing the Suffolk County Legislature since it was founded in 1970, I’d say that Dr. Spencer is one of its most extraordinary members ever.

He is past president of the Suffolk County Medical Society; Chief of Otolaryngology (the medical discipline that focuses on the ears, nose and throat) at Huntington Hospital; clinical professor at Stony Brook University Hospital; and founder of Long Island Otolaryngology & Pediatric Airway, a practice which specializes in head and neck surgery. He is also an ordained minister and licensed pilot. It should be also noted that he is an African-American, when in the  past , none were in elected offices in Suffolk for many, many years.

When vaping first emerged, the concern was that it “may be hazardous to your health,” said Dr. Spencer. But now, with many illnesses and deaths resulting from vaping, “it’s clear that vaping is hazardous to your health.”

The target in the vaping push, said Dr. Spencer, the father of three, has been teens. “Once they get them hooked, they get them hooked forever,” he said.

And the doses of nicotine received by vaping are enormous. “One Juul cartridge has the nicotine of a pack of cigarettes,” he said.

Moreover, for a teen, initially smoking “a regular cigarette” usually causes irritation and discomfort. But vaping with flavors such as “bubble gum” — clearly aimed at youth — softens the intake. Thus, hooking young people through vaping, causing them to become addicted to nicotine, is an easier process for the nicotine purveyors.

“We have to push back against the disinformation,” Dr. Spencer said. “We must bring awareness. A big issue is education.”

For example: The claim by the vaping industry that maybe additives put in by vaping outlets is the problem, is an effort by the “vape lobbyists to confound and confuse,” he said. “They seek to muddy the waters.”

And along with getting information out, governments must firmly confront vaping with legislation. Legislation enacted in Suffolk sponsored by Dr. Spencer includes prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and restricting the locations where they may be used.

He is encouraged by a new state restriction on flavored e-cigarettes, but is concerned it had to be done by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with an executive order, which can be reversed by a successor governor.

It’s also tied up in a court action taken by the Vapor Technology Association.

So, Dr. Spencer introduced a measure last month in the Suffolk Legislature to “codify in law” in the county that state order.

As the tobacco industry fought restrictions on smoking for decades — I was there when public relations people from its Tobacco Institute paraded before the Suffolk Legislature insisting there was no connection between smoking and cancer — the vaping forces are busy trying to thwart government action.
Newsday had an important article two weeks ago about how Juul and the Altria Group have been lobbying New York State and its local governments. Juul Labs makes up 70% of the e-cigarette market and 35% of Juul is owned by the Altria Group, a tobacco industry giant that manufactures cigarette brands, including Parliament and Marlboro.

“So far this year, Juul … spent $262,645 for lobbying, records show,” Newsday reported, and “Altria spent $594,707 lobbying Albany and local governments, including Suffolk County.”

Offices of members of the Suffolk Legislature have, my county sources say, been receiving calls from a public relations and lobbying company called Millennial Strategies, representing Juul, asking for meetings.

Millennial Strategies is based in Manhattan, but has an office on Long Island on Main Street in Huntington. It says on its website: “Millennial understands the imperative nature of proper campaign strategy.”