Illustration by Hunter French
A few years back, Dave Morris decided he wanted to do something to curb the use of vapes among American teens. A former manufacturer of the e-liquid in refillable vapes, he felt differently than a lot of the other people in the burgeoning scene when it came to the issue."There was probably a sentiment in the past from the industry that was initially, like, 'This isn't really our problem,'" Morris said. "But at the end of the day, I kind of realized that there's a difference between something being your responsibility and something being your fault."
There was only one catch. Most minors didn't obtain their vapes through vape and tobacco shops, but through people they knew, like older friends or relatives. That would make it difficult to figure out where the products had originated. So he started to develop something entirely new: a software that would track vaping products after the point of sale.The technology, which he calls Trace/Verify, is set to hit the market in March. With Trace/Verify, Morris has figured out a way to embed a chip directly into the vapes themselves. For the disposable vapes that teens prefer—like single-use Puff Bars—the chip is inserted in such a way that removing it would make them unusable. These chips can also be placed into bottles of refillable e-liquids vapes, although those are less common among minors.Each chip has a unique number that applies to the specific vape. When a vape is purchased at a store, the customer's ID is scanned and linked to it. The ID's information—including the state of issue and the customer's age at the time—is then saved on a cloud.If the technology were adopted nationally, a police officer could scan any minor's vape using a cellphone and then track down the source, Morris said.The use of radio-frequency identification technology, as it is known, has recently become popular among retailers. Last summer, Nike said it would add tracking to almost all of its footwear and apparel.
But Morris' idea would likely be more difficult to institute industry-wide, since its purpose is not to streamline supply chains, but to slow total sales. That means success for Trace/Verify will involve a broad-based partnership with federal and local governments alike. Otherwise, teenagers would likely seek products without a Trace/Verify chip.Morris initially feared that the technology might introduce a host of privacy concerns, but ultimately decided he'd be able to get around them."I did have some privacy concerns about this in the beginning," Morris said. "But the people who would be using this information would be law-enforcement officials, who could take this very limited information, look up in a DMV database, and determine who it belongs to. So in the event that it were even hacked, it would just give the person a bunch of useless information."Yingjiu Li, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Oregon and an expert in data security, agreed with that basic assessment. But he warned that the data should be encrypted, and that only law enforcement should be allowed to enable the data decryption.For the most part, the government has so far been alone in attempting to reduce teen vaping rates. In December, the Trump administration increased the federal age to buy nicotine products to 21, and a month later, it instituted a partial ban on flavored vaping products as more and more states and localities adopted ones of their own.
Some harm-reduction proponents and vape advocates—who view e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes—have said that Morris' software could be more of a hassle than a solution, especially for adults trying to transition from smoking to vaping. They think the accessibility of vaping is a big reason for its success; right now, somebody could walk into a gas station and purchase an e-cigarette just as easily as they could a pack of cigarettes.Clive Bates, a former public-health official in the United Kingdom, said requiring vape users to scan their ID could prove burdensome enough to stop some cigarette users from switching over."Potential users might give up and continue to smoke, or access products that don't use, or go to the black market," Bates said.But Charles Harris, who owns the North Carolina–based disposable vape company NicFit Go, doesn't see it that way. Harris plans to be among the first business owners to adopt Trace/Verify next month, and he hopes other vape manufacturers will embrace the technology as well."There hasn't been anything yet that the industry could use to counter legislators who are constantly claiming we're targeting youth," Harris said. "This could be it."Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.