Natasa Bansagi '16 M.S.
My interest in e-cigarettes stems back to London, England, where in 2014, I interned with the CBC. While researching for a potential article, I stumbled upon the debate over electronic cigarettes. I was instantly fascinated because of the many unanswered questions surrounding this industry: do e-cigarettes lead people away from tobacco smoking or bring new users toward it? What about the marketing of e-cigarettes—do e-liquid flavors like cherry or chocolate actually attract young non-smokers, or offer additional options for smokers looking to quit? While in London, I wrote about one type of e-cigarette and its potential to be sold in Canada.
The fact that there were so many uncertainties around this industry drew me back to e-cigarettes when I pitched a topic for my Master’s Project at Columbia. When I began researching e-cigarettes in the U.S. context, the business side of things—vape shops and lounges around New York City—caught my eye. After weeks of reading, my Master’s Adviser, Mike Hoyt, encouraged me to pay a visit to some of these shops to see what their atmosphere would be like. I visited a couple, mostly in Lower Manhattan, where I hung out and spoke to people, all while trying to figure out the frame of my story.
Meanwhile, through research, I quickly found that there were looming regulations from the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes and other “tobacco products,” and members of the e-cigarette industry were concerned about how small businesses would be affected. I found Cheryl and Chris’ business, Cherry Vape, online, and scheduled a time to meet with Cheryl at her shop in Port Chester, NY. This is where the story really began, because in Cheryl and Chris I found the most interesting people—not only were they business owners, but they were also involved in manufacturing their own products and in advocating for e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. Talking to experts and shop owners like Cheryl and Chris, I came to realize that the regulatory debate—more than the science or health aspects—was also about history, politics, and different countries’ attitudes toward addiction.
Less than two months after I submitted my 6,349-word Master’s Project, the regulations that formed the basis of the debate—with the FDA on one side and the e-cigarette industry on the other—were finally announced. For the first time in history, the FDA now has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes. But in all the coverage I found that the human side of the debate was lacking: who were some of the most active business owners that were apparently going to be affected, but had already been advocating for years? That, to me, was the most interesting part of my project.
So, I shortened my piece, updated it—given the regulations’ release—and pitched it to Motherboard as the human side of the fierce debate over e-cigarettes. My adviser, Mike Hoyt, who held a central role throughout the entire process, edited the piece before I submitted it, even though I had already graduated.