Independent vape shops, feeling the squeeze of tighter government regulations and renewed scrutiny from health advocates, have found themselves weathering a market that had been, for nearly a decade, in constant growth.
Store owners here and across the country have responded by trimming their stock, adding unrelated merchandise to their shops and cutting workers’ hours. Some stores have closed.
“It’s very hard to run a business when you’re constantly under the threat of being put out of business,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association.
An outbreak last year of a vaping-related illness sparked a quick reaction from lawmakers, who adopted new restrictions, including a three-month outright ban in Massachusetts. In Missouri, where two people died, the response was more muted, with the unveiling of a youth education campaign but no talk of tax increases. This month, the Food and Drug Administration enacted a ban on some flavored vape juices.
Vape store owners and advocates say the big companies can weather the storm. The burden falls disproportionately, they say, on the small shops.
Independent vape shops account for about one-fifth of the $3.6 billion U.S. e-cigarette market. The Connecticut-based pro-vaping advocacy organization reports a sales drop of 25% to 30% across an estimated 10,000 vape stores. Some owners here put that figure even higher, claiming they have lost half their business over the past six months.
Cherice Barrera, owner of CiggFreeds Liquid and Lace, converted a 1,200-square-foot house on Gravois Avenue six years ago to sell e-cigarette systems. The store has since added CBD, kratom and lingerie. Vaping supplies — she sells more than a hundred flavors — now comprise just a quarter of her business.
“The overall perception of vaping is the problem,” said Barrera. “People assume it’s just as unhealthy as smoking.”
EVALI, the lung disease that has sickened more than 2,500 people nationwide and killed 55 as of last month, isn’t the first health scare to which the industry has had to respond. Stories of exploding e-cigarette batteries, seizures among teens and “popcorn lung” momentarily captured the public’s attention.
But EVALI, which peaked in September, drew heavy media attention and spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning against the use of all vaping products until a cause could be identified.
Nearly all of the EVALI cases have been linked to the additive vitamin E acetate in e-cigarettes containing THC, the chemical in cannabis that produces a high. Vitamin E acetate is almost never found in unadulterated e-cigarettes, and many patients admitted purchasing their devices on the black market.
The outbreak pales in comparison to the 480,000 annual U.S. deaths attributed to smoking.
But the long-term effects of vaping remain unknown. Health organizations such as the American Lung Association have long advocated for a ban on flavored vaping juice and for the recently passed “Tobacco 21” law, which raised the age to buy any tobacco or nicotine product to 21 from 18.
“No one should use e-cigarettes,” said Jill Thompson, of the lung association.
Vape shop owners say they are helping adult smokers quit the habit, but the numbers are murky. About 1 in 7 U.S. adults smoke, according to the CDC, and fewer than 1 in 10 vape. But half of those using e-cigarettes are “dual users” who have continued to smoke.
Among high school students, vaping is almost five times as common as smoking, said the CDC, with more than a quarter of students reporting they’ve vaped in the past month.
But independent vape shop owners chafe at being blamed for youth vaping.
Prefilled nicotine cartridges, such as those made by Juul Labs, are typically sold at convenience stores and gas stations. Vape shops, which legally can’t admit anyone younger than 21, specialize in tank-based systems that let users fill the device with the flavor of their choice.
Justin Price, who owned the Vape Room in Oakville for five years, said that he seldom dealt with underage customers.
“Juul and pod devices are what youth use,” he said. “An 18-year-old is going to walk up to the QuikTrip” rather than trying to deal with the owner at a small shop.
Price opened his South County store after seeing the success a friend had with a vape shop in St. Charles.
“I was busy from my first day,” Price said.
He set up the space like a lounge, with a bar and six barstools, where customers chatted while they tried out new products and decided what to buy. On day one, he did more than $800 in sales, twice what he was expecting.
But by late 2018, he decided to close his doors. Even before last year’s EVALI crisis, Price said he could see where things were headed.
He and many shop owners have become advocates for their business, petitioning lawmakers, speaking at public meetings and peppering their Facebook posts with calls to action.
CASAA, the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, counts more than 200,000 subscribers to its online advocacy alerts.
Based in Plattsburgh, New York, the association lobbied hard against a ban on flavors, arguing that adults are just as likely as teens to enjoy choices such as peanut butter and jelly and candied watermelon jawbreaker.
“The variety of flavors is the product,” said Alex Clark, CASAA’s chief executive. “There’s a lot of pouring salt on wounds here.”
From Clark’s perspective, small vape shops have suffered disproportionately to the industry’s big players, lacking the financial wherewithal to absorb a patchwork of regulations, bans and excise taxes.
Shop owners here say they are catching their breath after the FDA’s Jan. 2 announcement of a ban on flavored vape juices that was far less strict than the one initially floated by President Donald Trump in the fall.
At the same time, they are bracing for a May deadline on a court-ordered mandate for manufacturers to file premarket tobacco applications, required for every e-cigarette product introduced since 2009 and estimated by the FDA to cost up to $466,000 per application.
They fear that cost will be passed along to them, further slicing into their profit margins and potentially turning customers off their products.
“The FDA is going to kill ‘mom and pop,’” said Price, the former South County vape shop owner. “They’re going to hand the industry over.”