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Vaping sales down during scare over deaths, one owner says

In the weeks since a number of deaths were linked to vaping by health officials, sales at the Gorilla Vapes location in Egg Harbor Township are down 25%-30%, according to franchise co-owner Adam Rubin.

In New Jersey, officials and doctors are keeping tabs on the developing “mystery illness.”

Many vapers are too.

“It’s been brutal,” Rubin said of the drop in sales at the Egg Harbor Township shop he co-owns with his daughter.

Officials have identified about 450 possible cases, including as many as five deaths, in 33 states, including New Jersey. No single vaping device, liquid or ingredient has been tied to all the illnesses, officials said.

Many of the sickened — but not all — were people who said they had been vaping THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its high. Many are teens.

In August, the New Jersey Department of Health issued an advisory saying it was looking into nine such cases in the state, “primarily reported among persons between the ages of 17 to 35 with no significant past medical history.” Coverage of the illness has spurred a national conversation about the risks of the practice, which for years has been touted as a healthy alternative to smoking. That conversation is taking place in South Jersey as well, affecting sales at vape shops and putting health officials on high alert.

As of this weekend, AtlantiCare hasn’t seen any cases “as far as we can tell,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta.

Dr. Frances Loftus, assistant chair of the department of critical care at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, said it is not a good practice to inhale any chemical or substance into the lungs because it can cause lung damage.

“Smoking cigarettes can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease and cancer. We can’t fully compare the risks yet because we don’t fully know what distributors are putting into these products. Vapors can contain nicotine carcinogens and other substances,” Loftus said.

“These vape-related illnesses, we are not sure what causes them because the symptoms can be similar to other illnesses.

“We are still learning what causes these illnesses and what symptoms look like. Not all people report that they’ve vaped — especially young people. Most of the people who were affected, according to published reports, were young, otherwise healthy people,” she said.

“We need to talk with the young people in our life – whether they’re patients, children, students, nieces or nephews. They need to know that vaping is not cool. It can be extremely dangerous,” Loftus said.

What is lost in the flurry of media coverage, Rubin said, is that the issue is largely contained to cartridges illegally filled with THC.

Health officials have only been counting certain lung illnesses in which the person had vaped within three months. Doctors say the illnesses resemble an inhalation injury, with the body apparently reacting to a caustic substance that someone breathed in. Symptoms have included shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain and vomiting.

“We’re all wondering if this is new or just newly recognized,” said Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently.

New York state has focused its investigation on an ingredient called Vitamin E acetate, which has been used to thicken marijuana vape juice but is considered dangerous if heated and inhaled. State investigators have found the substance in 13 cartridges collected from eight patients. In several cases, the ingredient made up more than half of the liquid in the cartridge.

Rich Norcross, a sales associate at Gorilla Vapes in Egg Harbor Township and a vaper himself, said when THC cartridges are cut with something like Vitamin E, the filler can re-form in the lungs.

“We’ve been open for about 4 years, and we’ve never had an issue with people coming back with pneumonia or anything like that,” Norcross said. “This epidemic obviously only started a couple months ago, which is when those (THC) cartridges things have become popular.”

An article on 53 illnesses in Illinois and Wisconsin noted that nearly one-fifth of the cases were people who said they vaped nicotine and not anything that contained THC or CBD oil.

Gorilla Vapes has been manufacturing their own e-liquid “exactly the same way” for 5 years, Rubin said.

“There’s never been a problem, there’s never been an issue,” he said.

The shop has resources to inform confused or concerned customers.

Rubin points to the fact that cigarette-related deaths dwarf those resulting from any kind of vaping. The Center for Disease Control puts the number of deaths linked to cigarette smoking at 480,000 a year in the United States.

“I’m not saying that there couldn’t be something in vaping that could hurt people down the road but up to this point they haven’t found anything,” Rubin said.

Staff Writer Vincent Jackson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Juul warned over claims e-cigarette safer than smoking

WASHINGTON — Federal health authorities on Monday blasted vaping company Juul for illegally pitching its electronic cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking and ordered the company to stop making unproven claims for its products.

The Food and Drug Administration also upped its scrutiny of a number of key aspects of Juul’s business, telling the company to turn over documents about its marketing, educational programs and nicotine formula.

The FDA action increases the pressure on the nation’s best-selling vaping company, which has been besieged by scrutiny from state and federal officials since a recent surge in underage vaping. Federal law bans sales to those under 18. The FDA has been investigating Juul for months but had not previously taken action against the company.

A Juul spokesman said the company “will fully cooperate” with the FDA.

In a sternly worded warning letter, the agency flagged various claims made by Juul representatives, including that its products are “much safer than cigarettes.” Currently no vaping product has been federally reviewed to be less harmful than traditional tobacco products, and that won’t happen for a while.

In the past year, Juul has tried to position its e-cigarettes as a tool to help adult smokers stop smoking, using the tagline “Make the Switch.” In a separate letter to the company’s CEO, the FDA said it is “concerned” that the advertising campaign suggests “that using Juul products poses less risk or is less harmful than cigarettes.”

“JUUL has ignored the law, and very concerningly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth,” said FDA acting commissioner Ned Sharpless, in a statement.

The agency’s warning letter highlights an incident recounted by two New York high school students during a congressional hearing in July. The students told House lawmakers that a representative from Juul was invited to address the school as part of an assembly on mental health and addiction issues. During the presentation, the students said the representative told them the company’s product was “totally safe.” The representative also showed students a Juul device and claimed the FDA “was about to come out and say it was 99 percent safer than cigarettes.”

Juul says it discontinued its school programs — which were intended to discourage underage use — last September. Juul and similar small, discrete e-cigarettes have become a scourge in U.S. schools nationwide.

FDA warning letters are not legally binding, but regulators can take companies to court if they don’t comply with their requests. Juul has 15 business days to respond with a plan for fixing the problems.

E-cigarettes have been on the U.S. market for more than a decade, but the FDA didn’t gain the authority to regulate them until 2016. E-cigarette makers have until next May to submit their products to the FDA for health reviews.

Most experts, though, agree the aerosol from e-cigarettes is less harmful than cigarette smoke since it doesn’t contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco. E-cigarettes generally heat liquid containing nicotine. But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of vaping.

The recent outbreak of lung illnesses mostly involves people who said they vaped marijuana.

In the letter to Juul CEO Kevin Burns, FDA regulators said they were “troubled” by a number of other points raised at the congressional hearing. The letter cites testimony that Juul’s advertising “saturated social media channels frequented by underage teens,” and “used influencers and discount coupons to attract new customers.”

Last year, Juul closed down its social media sites. And under pressure, it also voluntarily removed its fruit and dessert flavors from retail stores. The FDA has proposed regulations on e-cigarettes that would restrict their sales in most stores, though they have not been finalized.

In a tweet Monday, first lady Melania Trump said she was concerned about the “growing epidemic of e-cigarette use in our children.”

FDA regulators also asked Juul to turn over detailed information about its potent nicotine formula. In the last year, researchers have published several papers analyzing Juul’s use of “nicotine salts,” a formulation which allows users to inhale higher levels of nicotine with reduced throat harshness.

Regulators asked the company to explain why it uses nicotine salts and how this affects potential addiction.

The letter also criticizes the company for apparently turning over more documents to congressional investigators than to the agency “despite previous document requests from FDA.”

Longport American Legion post provides all-expense-paid vacation for Wounded Warrior

LONGPORT — In honor of the eighth annual Wounded Warriors Week, American Legion Post 469 is providing a Navy SEAL and his family with an all-expenses-paid vacation and a parade escort to a beach block home.

Joseph Hahn, a medically retired Navy SEAL, his wife, Morgan, and their four sons will arrive from Oklahoma at Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Members of the American Legion will greet them and they will be transported to South Jersey by a jitney.

The escort will continue from the Ventnor Shopping Plaza, where the Hahn family will move into a convertible limo and be part of a parade motorcade through Downbeach about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The American Legion urges residents to come and show their support.

During their week at the shore, the Hahn family will be treated to special celebrations, family outings and trips to local amusements, courtesy of Post 469.

“The families really get to know the local chapter,” said Larry Pacentrilli, commander of Post 469. “We’ve even had our past recipients come back to visit.”

The family vacation is supported by members of the community and contributors to the American Legion. Pacentrilli said that for the past eight years, the post has used contacts within the military to provide the vacation to members of all branches.

“Because our contributors have been so generous, we can do a lot for the family,” Pacentilli said.

Hahn, 37, enlisted in the United States Navy as a special operator first class after the Sept. 11 attacks and was stationed with a West Coast team of the Navy SEALs from 2005 to 2009, deploying multiple times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was also deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Free and other undisclosed locations worldwide.

According to his biography, Hahn suffered severe injuries to his right and left legs, individually, during two separate freefall workups to specific missions and deployments. Each injury required several surgeries and extended recovery time.

However, Hahn was allowed to return to his unit. After two more deployments, Hahn realized the extent of his injuries, including several traumatic brain injuries from explosions while overseas. Hahn was medically retired from military service in 2017.

He received multiple awards and commendations for his service, including a Purple Heart.

He and his wife have four sons: Hunter, 12, Blake, 5, Clayton, 3, and Gunner, 18-months.

'Everything is on the table' Atlantic City Tax Task Force explores options

ATLANTIC CITY — Stakeholders from the state, county and city met behind closed doors Monday to discuss options for property owners who were recently hit with a substantial — and surprise — tax increase.

Despite “everything” being on the table and participation from officials capable of enacting meaningful reforms, the first meeting of the Atlantic City tax task force produced no immediate results for taxpayers.

But, those who took part in the nearly three-hour meeting said it was productive and left encouraged by the discussions that transpired.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs and convened the task force, said Monday’s meeting centered around transparency and improving communication among all parties.

“I think that it was the first time in history, I’m told, that the various stakeholder institutions in Atlantic City had the type of discussion that we had with one another,” she said. “I think everyone is looking forward to sitting down with some economists and some tax experts, and really beginning to scientifically project what’s the best way to put the city and the county and the regional economy on a good footing.”

The average Atlantic City home, valued at $150,000, will pay a tax bill of $5,850 this year, an increase of $676.50 from 2018, according to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation. The tax rate for Atlantic City property owners for 2019-20 is $3.98 per $100 of assessed property value. About 25 cents of the increase ($373.50) is for county taxes, even though the amount to be raised from city residents decreased by about $1.5 million this year; and 20 cents ($297) is for school taxes. The city tax rate went up only slightly, from $1.831 to $1.835 ($6).

The cause for the increase is two-fold: the city received nearly $6.7 million less in tax credits from the county this year and the reduction of the city’s overall tax base, both of which are a direct result of the casino payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program enacted several years ago at the onset of the state takeover.

Freeholder Earnest Coursey, who represents Atlantic City on the county board, said the task force participants recognized that the unexpected tax increase constituted a “crisis,” not just for those on a fixed income but for the average city resident who is barely getting by as it is. While no specifics were made public, Coursey said that “everything was on the table” in terms of finding both short- and long-term tax relief for city property owners.

Coursey, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, said the fact that no one at any level of government warned city residents about the tax increase was a “serious issue” but added that the time for placing blame was over.

“We need to talk about policies and not politics,” Coursey said Monday. “Whether we’re sitting on the freeholder board, whether we are in the city of Atlantic City or the state of New Jersey, today is not the day to be pointing fingers. We already know what happened. How do we correct the problem?”

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, a Republican running for re-election who was originally tapped by Oliver to lead the task force but was later only asked to participate, was not present Monday. County Counsel James Ferguson appeared on behalf of Levinson and said the county was concerned that it was shouldering the blame for the tax increase.

A Sept. 6 letter from Levinson to DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long suggests that the state, which is in control of both the city government and local school board, should have been aware of the impending tax increase and could have taken measures to prevent it.

“You control the functions of city government because you found the mayor and city council lacking and believed you could better manage city government. You also found fault with the management of the school board’s finances and took that under your wing. But somehow, you contend the Atlantic City tax increase is the fault of Atlantic County government that wields no control in this matter and the school system that you control,” the letter reads.

Ferguson said while transparency was discussed Monday, the county’s position was that the ideal was not being adhered to. As an example, he cited an Open Public Records Act request submitted on Aug. 23 for tax appeal judgments to the city and state that had yet to receive a response.

Levinson letter AC taxes

“I must question if there is a genuine interest in finding a solution to Atlantic City’s tax issues or if public perception is your primary focus,” Levinson’s letter concluded.

Council President Marty Small Sr., who also serves as chair of the city’s revenue and finance committee, said the ultimate goal is to take care of residents and prevent another surprise such as this in the future. Small said there were discussions about how the city could recoup lost revenue streams from the luxury tax, room and parking fees, and the recently created tax on sports betting revenue that benefits two other state municipalities with retail sportsbooks but excludes Atlantic City.

‘We’re not pointing the fingers because residents don’t want to hear that,” he said. “The bottom line is this: we need to increase our revenue streams.”

A subsequent tax task force meeting was agreed to by all parties, but a date has not been set.