E-Cig Explosion, Fire Injuries Don't Worry Vapers

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By Martina Barash

Oct. 24 — Scores of e-cigarette users have reportedly been injured, some seriously, because of faulty lithium-ion batteries overheating and exploding.

Despite the risk, battery safety doesn’t appear to be a top priority for vapers and a safe battery isn’t much of a selling point for makers.

Food and Drug Administration scientists have identified a total of 134 reports of overheating incidents, fires and explosions from 2009 into early 2016.

But that number is likely an underestimate, according to agency spokesman Michael Felberbaum.

Many Lawsuits Pending

A recent interview with one plaintiffs’ attorney working on e-cig cases appears to bear that out.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Gregory L. Bentley told Bloomberg BNA he’s spoken to “upwards of 130 or 140 different people over the last 6 or 7 months” who say they’ve been injured by e-cigarette fires and explosions ( 44 PSLR 1089, 10/17/16 ).

He said he’s currently handling about 80 e-cigarette cases. Bentley is with Bentley & More LLP in Irvine, Calif.

Bentley said a short-circuiting problem has affected e-cigarettes, specifically “deep-discharging” lithium-ion batteries to extend battery life, which can cause metallic structures to grow inside the battery and create a short circuit.

And “unwrapped or damaged” e-cigarette batteries can short-circuit, sometimes in users’ pockets, according to Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. The AVA is “an advocacy group that champions vapor products for smokers looking to quit,” according to Conley.

Exploding e-cigarettes have caused neck fractures, severe burns, broken teeth, finger amputation and other injuries, according to an April 2016 report by the National Fire Protection Association.

Reliability, Premium Product Are Draws

But representatives of two of the bigger e-cigarette makers said they haven’t seen evidence that consumers are shying away from e-cigs out of battery-safety concerns.

“Reliability and the different designs are what people notice the most” about the V2 brand of e-cigarettes made by VMR, that maker's chief executive officer told Bloomberg BNA. According to VMR, it's never been sued by a customer.

CEO Jan Verleur, who described the reported instances of fires and explosions across the industry as actually “statistically very small,” doesn’t think the company's touting of its products' batteries as safe has been “a major factor in attracting people.”

Verleur also said he hasn’t seen any “concrete” research showing said that the use of e-cigarettes is slowing because of battery problems, though he’s “heard industry speculation” about that possibility.

Steve Callahan, a spokesman for Altria Group, whose NuMark subsidiary makes MarkTen e-cigarettes, said Altria doesn’t use battery safety as a marketing tool. It markets its e-cigarettes as a “premium product,” with an emphasis on the vapor, he said. Altria also says it's never been sued by a customer.

Callahan said he hasn’t seen evidence of a drop in use because of safety concerns. While he said the e-cigarette growth rate is slowing among adult tobacco users, he attributed that to tax increases and other factors.

Distinguisher Doesn't Distinguish?

Vapers' apparent lack of concern about battery safety may not be the best news for big makers like VMR and Altria, as one of their distinguishing factors may be the amount of work they put into battery reliability.

A lot of smaller e-cigarette companies buy their products from China and aren’t involved in their manufacture, Verleur, of VMR, said. The “vast majority” of the industry doesn’t know who makes the components for their products, he said.

VMR's size, vertical integration and technology orientation allow it to do things to ensure battery safety that these smaller companies can’t, Verleur said.

VMR is “the largest independent e-cigarette company in the U.S.,” Verleur said. “Independent” companies are those not affiliated with large conventional cigarette companies, like Altria, he said. VMR employs 25 engineers with master’s or higher degrees, he said—“sizeable for our industry.”

VMR selects the subcomponent vendors, designs models “from the ground up,” and tests its overcharge circuitry internally, Verleur said. “Companies that are that vertically integrated certainly have the ability to control quality at a much higher level,” he said.

One aspect of battery manufacture is aging, in which battery cells are laid out in trays for a period of time to allow defective ones to “pop,” he said. VMR’s suppliers say they age the batteries for 30 days, and VMR ages them an additional 15 to 20 days, Verleur said. VMR conducts destructive testing for charging and discharging performance, he said.

And VMR builds its own overcharge circuitry, he said.

Callahan, of Altria Group, said its NuMark business also takes several steps toward battery safety. Those include high-quality vendors, third-party audits and in-house failure analysis, he said. NuMark also makes its e-cigarettes chargeable only with a NuMark USB port, he said. And the batteries comply with the Underwriters Labratory standard for lithium-ion batteries, which is not mandatory, he said.

Smaller-Business View

As for smaller e-cig makers, the primary industry group that represents them says it's important for users to choose their suppliers wisely and follow all instructions when charging their e-cigarettes.

“We continue to urge users to purchase high-quality vapor products from reputable vendors and to use the correct type of charger and follow manufacturer guidelines when recharging their devices,” the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association said in an e-mailed statement.

SFATA's members are mostly small and mid-sized manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers.

“We continue to urge users to purchase high-quality vapor products from reputable vendors and to use the correct type of charger and follow manufacturer guidelines when recharging their devices,” the group said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash at MBarash@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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