Can Trump drain the flavors from vaping? Banning them is a two-edged sword

A man uses an e-cigarette at a vape store in Chicago.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

To understand the scale of the public health challenge vaping presents, consider the Vapor Shop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

The sparsely stocked store sells mostly flavored vaping products alongside regular cigarettes, snacks, bongs and hats that proclaim “I Vape.” If the U.S. government bans the sale of flavored e-cigarette cartridges until regulators approve those products, as senior health officials threatened Wednesday, it could be fatal for the shop and others like it, according to 25-year-old manager Steven Hernandez.

“The business would die,” Hernandez said just after the Trump administration unveiled its plans. “There’s no profit in selling cigarettes.”


But there’s another, bigger risk: Curbing flavored vapes could close off access to what many people claim has been an effective tool in helping them break a cigarette habit. Hernandez puts himself in that group. He says vaping helped him largely quit smoking after his children were born.

Justin Boivin, 39, who owns the Juicy Vape Shop in Abbotsford, Canada, was visiting the U.S. and stopped in at the Vapor Shop on Wednesday. He said he used to smoke cigarettes and would get winded while hiking with his dogs. He switched to vaping several years ago.

“I feel way better,” Boivin said. “My clothes don’t smell. It’s cheaper. I don’t have to huff and puff anymore. I haven’t gotten any diseases.”

The hope that vaping could help curtail tobacco use — which leads to more than 480,000 deaths a year in the United States — shaped the Food and Drug Administration’s initial approach to regulating the industry. Tobacco-related illnesses are the world’s leading cause of preventable death. But an explosion in the use of vaping products by teenagers — many of whom said they had never smoked traditional cigarettes — caused the agency to change tack. A survey last year found that more than 20% of the nation’s high school seniors reported vaping in the last 30 days.

Limiting access to flavored e-cigarettes is a good strategy to stop some kids from getting hooked on nicotine, said Eric Lindblom, director for tobacco control and food and drug law at Georgetown University’s O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. But it raises the question of what would fill that void, he said.

“The good part is it will stop a lot of kids from becoming addicted e-cigarette users,” he said. “On the negative side, it could push a lot of current flavored e-cigarette users to move on to flavored smoked tobacco products.”

A number of young adults visiting a vape shop in New York this week said they hadn’t smoked before they started vaping, or had started after experimenting with traditional cigarettes. Many said they used flavors such as mint or mango that would be pulled from the market for a time under the restrictions proposed by U.S. officials this week.

Miho Common, a 22-year-old financial analyst, said she had used watermelon and mint pods with a device called Relx but has since stopped vaping. She said she didn’t start in an attempt to quit smoking. She thought vaping looked fun and was relatively harmless, though the recent outbreak of a mysterious lung disease in hundreds of people who reported vaping had given her pause. Health officials haven’t determined the precise cause of the illness, which so far has killed six people nationwide.

Still, Common wondered about the unintended consequences of new curbs. “It’s already illegal for kids,” she said. “It will probably create a black market with dangerous, unregulated stuff.”

Since the emergence of the lung illness, several states have taken steps of their own to rein in vaping. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered health officials to require retailers to post warnings about vaping risks. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week ordered a ban on the sale of flavored nicotine products in stores and online for six months. Stores will have 30 days to stop sales once the emergency rules are written, likely later this month, Whitmer said.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has campaigned and given money in support of a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco.

Christopher Bacho, 34, is the chief executive of the Vapor Shoppe, which operates nine retail operations in suburbs in and around Troy, Mich., about 20 miles north of Detroit. The company also sells 140 flavors of its own vape juice under the brand name TVS. Bacho says regulation is good for the vaping industry, as long as it’s fair.

Tobacco-flavored vape juice, which federal regulators said Wednesday they will allow to stay on the market, accounts for about a quarter of Vapor Shoppe’s sales, Bacho said. Fruit flavors make up another 25% and menthol and mint account for the rest. Bacho said many customers are vaping as an alternative way of getting nicotine. Others vape instead of smoking a hookah, which is popular with the large Arabic population in the Detroit area, he said.

Users of online forums such as a Reddit message board dedicated to e-cigarettes have said the uproar over vaping is misplaced. They blame illegal cartridges modified to vape synthetic THC, the compound in marijuana that creates its high. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited THC as a possible factor in some cases of the disease, while noting others had said they used THC and nicotine products, or nicotine by itself.

“A lot of the stuff has nothing to do with our industry,” Bacho said. “But if an industry is getting as big as ours, and it’s not regulated, I think it needs to be looked at, at least, and make it better for the consumers. But it’s got to be a fair process.”

Others point out that even if flavored vapes are taken out of stores, other flavored tobacco products would remain on the market.

Opponents of smoking have been trying to get menthol removed from cigarettes since 2009, when the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act banned flavored cigarettes in the United States but exempted menthol, said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. The law also didn’t ban candy-flavored cigars and cigarillos, which — along with menthol — attract minority teens who can’t afford vaping products, he said. “I’ve heard this before, we’ve heard this since 2009, and nothing happened,” Jefferson said. “Let’s not forget these products that vulnerable populations are consuming. Your tackling e-cigarettes is all well and good, but vulnerable populations can’t afford e-cigarettes.”

Juul Labs Inc., the maker of the biggest-selling vaping device, has positioned its products as a tool to help smokers quit — though regulators are looking into whether it crossed the line in any of its marketing with unapproved claims of effectiveness as a smoking-cessation tool. Still, the San Francisco company has said it doesn’t want people to pick up a nicotine habit from its products. Chief Executive Kevin Burns said in an interview with CBS last month that if you don’t already use nicotine, “don’t vape. Don’t use Juul.”

The company has also responded to pressure from public health officials and parents. Following criticism of its flavors and its marketing last year, Juul closed down much of its social media presence and stopped selling all but its mint, menthol and tobacco pods for resale at retail stores, offering other flavors only at its online shop. But the dwindling inventories of those flavors at some stores remain popular.

Jorge Piedrahita, manager of the Stogz Smoke Shop on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Beverly Grove neighborhood, said his store’s big seller is mango Juul.

“That’s what people go crazy about,” he said. “They did a great job on that product.”

Juul has signaled that it will cooperate with the FDA and other regulators as it changes its approach. On Wednesday, company spokesman Matt David said Juul “strongly agreed with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products.”

Users, meanwhile, are sticking with Juul. Elliot Lynch, a 38-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., who works as a restaurant host, is a former smoker who says vaping with Juul’s device — which is small and sleek and resembles a USB stick — helped him stop smoking cigarettes.

“Before I tried Juul, I tried every other type of vaping and it was not working,” Lynch said. “The convenience of Juul is what helped me stop.”

Lynch said that potential restrictions on flavors aren’t an issue for him, though he said right now he uses mint. “If all they had was tobacco-flavored, I would be fine with that,” he said, adding that he didn’t think banning flavors would deter other Juul users either.

“They’re saying the flavors are getting the kids to come in, but you’re still selling the Juul, so what difference does it make?” Lynch said. “They’re already addicted.”