Smoking is down — the majority of young Americans once smoked, and today the most recent CDC statistics say fewer than one in six people between 18 to 25 are smokers. But from the ashes of cigarettes has emerged a high tech replacement: vaping. In 2015 Reuters reported that 18 percent of that same age group were regular users of vaporizers, which turn liquid solutions, usually containing nicotine, into steam that can be inhaled.
The portable vaporizer was invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003 and e-cigarettes reached American shores in 2006. Since then the popularity of vaping has exploded. Unfortunately, so too have many vaping devices, severely injuring their owners. Vaporizers have blown up in people’s pockets, causing burns on their legs, or in their faces, sending fire and shrapnel into people’s mouths and eyes.
One Princeton area lawyer has become an expert in vaping law, representing several people in lawsuits against distributors and vendors of vaping equipment. Domenic Sanginiti, right, an associate lawyer at Stark & Stark on Lenox Drive, is currently representing a two teenagers and their families. By his account, the 16-year-old girl was lifting a vaping device to her mouth when it exploded, causing severe injuries to her face and the arm of her 18-year-old boyfriend.
Although there are no hard statistics on vaping explosions, there are more than a dozen news stories from the last year about such injuries. Sometimes, vaping batteries explode while being used, and other times they blow up in people’s pockets, setting their pants on fire, or just while recharging and not in use. Sanginiti says he hasn’t heard about anyone dying yet, though there have been some fairly horrific injuries.
Last year in Brooklyn, a 14 year-old boy named Leor Domatov was at a vaping supply kiosk in Brooklyn, and the salesperson plugged one in to show him how it worked. The device blew up in Domatov’s hands, blinding him in one eye, cutting his cornea, and burning his hands and face. Danny Califf, a 35-year-old former professional soccer player, was vaping last November when he suffered a similar fate. He had already put the vaporizer in his mouth when it exploded, blowing a hole in his cheek and giving him severe burns and a concussion. “We’ve heard about paralysis, and we’ve heard about someone just missing having their spinal column severed when an exploding battery basically became a bullet through someone’s mouth,” Sanginiti said.
Sanginiti said the problem with the e-cigarettes goes back to the way they function. Like a high-tech hookah, battery-powered vaping devices use an electrical current to heat vaping liquid into steam. The resulting water vapor delivers a nicotine kick, and it’s usually spiked with flavors like blueberry cheesecake, vanilla, or strawberry. Vaporizers are usually powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which if overcharged, can explode. The FDA does not currently regulate vaping liquids or devices, and sometimes they come with chargers that can plug into a computer’s USB port. However, the chargers are sometimes incompatible with the vape devices’ batteries, and cause them to overcharge.
“It’s unregulated and it’s the wild-wild west,” Sanginiti said. “There’s a race to put these things on the market. Nobody’s going around testing these products to guarantee their safety. When you have no regulation, this is what can happen.”
There are also concerns about the safety of the vaping liquid itself. Many vaping flavors contain diacetyl, a chemical that was found to cause respiratory illness in workers at a factory that made microwave buttered popcorn. However, there are no reported cases of “popcorn lung” from vaping, and the scientific evidence of the health effects of vaping is scant.
Aside from possible health risks, and the exploding problem, there is the question of how vaping should be treated by the law and by employers. By now smoking has been shunned from most workplaces and public areas, but vaping is still under a cloud of confusion.
Vaping has been banned at some airports, but at others it is still okay to light one up, as long as it’s an e-cigarette and not one of the tobacco variety. “Right now it’s a case-by-case basis,” Sanginiti said. “I haven’t really seen any firm rules, and it seems like a lot of people believe it’s socially acceptable to vape wherever they go.”
Sanginiti grew up in Voorhees where his mother was a nurse and his father was a high school principal. He also has firsthand experience with vaping devices. “I was a smoker and I was looking at e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking” he said. However, he soon quit vaping too. “I started looking at the research, and the more research I did, the more I realized the dangers of this. In essence, it’s an unregulated product that is out on the market.”
Sanginiti, who has been a lawyer since graduating from law school in 2007, specializes in personal injury suits, mostly for traffic accidents. He recently turned his attention to vaping and has been working with a mass tort group within Stark and Stark to investigate new cases relating to e-cigarettes and vaping.
He believes that this area of the law is bound to grow in the future as the popularity of vaping increases. “I suspect we will only see an increase in catastrophic injuries among individuals that use them,” he said. “There’s not a lot of education out there about the dangers of these products.”
In May, the FDA proposed that it would begin regulating vaping and e-cigarette products under its existing authority to control “tobacco-like products.” Since most vaping liquids contain nicotine, the agency says they fit the definition despite not being derived from tobacco. The move has drawn protest from the nation’s vapers and vape manufacturers but Sanginiti believes it’s a step in the right direction. He noted that the leading lobbyist against the new rules was the tobacco company RJ Reynolds, which is also one of the leading makers of vape products.