As The Vaping War Heats Up, This E-cigarette Advocate Pushes Ahead

E-cigarettes have taken off, but with pending government regulations their future hangs in the balance.

Like many longtime smokers, Gregory Conley picked up the habit as a teenager. And like many smokers, he tried quitting, with nicotine gum, the patch, lozenges, everything including going cold turkey, but he always relapsed. Then, in 2009, he decided to give electronic cigarettes a try, but they didn't work either. The following year, however, he got hold of a premium e-cigarette device β€” the kind where you load the liquid nicotine, known as "e-liquid," into a refillable tank that gets heated by a more powerful battery and creates lots of vapor β€” "and overnight I managed to quit smoking," he says.

Since then, he has advocated for this disruptive technology that's projected to eventually oust regular cigarettes, and last year became president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit that looks out for the interests of the thousands of small to medium-sized e-cigarette businesses across the country.

Conley, a fresh-faced 28-year-old lawyer (mostly non-practicing) who lives in Medford, New Jersey, is now on the front lines of a battle that could decide the future of e-cigarettes and whether they continue to thrive and evolve or end up getting snuffed out by pending government regulations. He spends a third of his time on the road, trying to educate vapor product retailers and help them organize into state level groups. He also works with lobbyists, testifies at hearings, attends vape shows and conferences, does educational seminars, and speaks to any members of government who will listen, such as the Georgia Conference of Black Mayors several weeks ago.

Gregory Conley at the Vaping Convention Circuit in Pittsburgh this past weekend.
Gregory Conley at the Vaping Convention Circuit in Pittsburgh this past weekend. Kevin Skipper

"Our goal is for the vapor products market to be as open as necessary for as many smokers as possible to be able to use these products to quit," he says. "The best environment is one where a smoker is able to access stores that carry the best products and that those products can be on the market without the prices having to be raised to such a point where they're no longer competitive with cigarettes."

But with the new FDA regulations proposed last year, that may be too much to ask. If they get passed β€”the FDA has said it would issue its ruling this month, though that seems unlikely β€” it would require all manufacturers wishing to keep their vaping products on the market to go through a lengthy approval process that Conley estimates would cost at least $1.5 million per product. The big tobacco companies would have no problem covering this expense, but the startups driving innovation in the industry, even the successful ones, would eventually be put out of business, he says, speculating that this would lead to a large black market for e-liquid.

Premium vaping devices and e-liquid.
Premium vaping devices and e-liquid. iStock

Conley would prefer some sort of compromise, like exempting existing products from having to get FDA approval. Even better, he'd like to see Congress enact a bill that would put all vaping products in a separate category for regulation, like "smoke-free nicotine products," rather than lumping them in with all forms of tobacco as they currently are.

The fiercest opposition to e-cigarettes comes from the anti-tobacco movement, which has the same long-term goal as Conley: helping smokers quit for good. In recent years, organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials have persuaded legislators to take up this fight, which has led to new laws around the country that subject e-cigarettes to the same restrictions as regular cigarettes.

"In the past decade," says Conley, "anti-smoking became anti-tobacco and then anti-tobacco has become anti-anything that looks like tobacco or smoking."

While it's true that e-cigs don't have a long enough track record to allow for conclusive studies about their dangers, vaping enthusiasts argue that whatever the hazards, they can't possibly be as bad as combustible cigarettes, which are chock-full of chemicals and carcinogens that cause over 5 million deaths worldwide every year.

"I think many anti-vapor activists are just trying to confuse and mislead people rather than accurately reflect the science," says Conley. He mentions San Francisco, for instance, whose Department of Public Health is running a campaign that states e-cigarettes are "harmful, like cigarettes," even though that is still under debate. As of now, there are conflicting findings. Some studies, like this one from last year that looked at how e-cigarettes affect gene expression, suggest that they might not be so benign.

Another e-cigarette foe is Big Tobacco, which sees the smaller companies that make and sell those premium vaping devices and e-liquids as a threat to their own e-cig lines. In an article published in the National Review earlier this year, Conley wrote that companies like R.J. Reynolds have been investing heavily in promoting product bans, higher taxes, and costly regulations aimed at killing off the competition.

A 'cigalike' style e-cigarette like those produced by Big Tobacco.
A 'cigalike' style e-cigarette like those produced by Big Tobacco. iStock

And with good reason. In a breakdown of the $2.5 billion e-cigarette industry last year by Wells Fargo Securities, $1 billion went to Big Tobacco's cigalikes and $1.5 billion to the independent premium vapor products. In 2015, the gap has continued to widen. This may have something to do with the fact that the disposable cigalike varieties made by tobacco companies, like R.J. Reynolds' Vuse and Altria's MarkTen, which mimic the look and feel of regular cigarettes, seem to be less effective for quitting than the premium vaping systems. One study found that, among daily users, 28 percent of those who used the refillable premium e-cigs succeeded in quitting, versus 11 percent who used cigalikes.

Though Conley has been fighting a perpetual uphill battle as more legislators jump on the anti-e-cig bandwagon, he is undeterred, saying he's in it for the long haul. Fortunately for him, he is not alone in this fight.

"Quitting smoking after trying and failing for 10, 20, 30 years creates advocates," he says, "so it's not too hard to find help when it's needed."

Cover image courtesy Gregory Conley.