Health and Science

Vape shop owners on edge while Trump administration wavers on banning flavored e-cigarettes

Key Points
  • Trump administration officials in September said they were preparing to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
  • The administration appears to be reconsidering the ban amid a backlash.
  • Vape shop owners say they would go out of business if they could not sell flavors.
Vape consumer advocate groups and vape storeowners around the country hold a rally outside of the White House to protest the proposed vaping flavor ban in Washington DC on November 9, 2019.
Jose Luis Magana | AFP | Getty Images

Christian Liriano is glued to his phone these days, anxiously awaiting any news on whether the Trump administration will ban flavored e-cigarettes.

Liriano, 27, owns a vape shop called Vape Hangar in Jacksonville, Florida. Two months ago, he thought he would be forced to close, as the Trump administration said it was preparing to ban all nontobacco e-cigarette flavors.

Two months later, the administration appears to be reconsidering. A top tobacco regulator on Wednesday told Congress that there is no final answer on whether the administration will pursue the ban. While officials waver, vape shop owners across the country like Liriano are looking for any indication of where the administration will land — and what will happen to their business.

"We're waiting to see what our president puts out," said Liriano, who opened his shop in 2014. "Until then, we're biting our fingernails and praying."

E-cigarettes are billed as a less harmful way for people to consume nicotine than cigarettes. Vape shop owners pride themselves in helping people quit smoking. But e-cigarettes have become enormously popular with teenagers over the past few years, prompting regulators to tighten regulations to limit youth access.

Faced with new data showing more than 5 million U.S. teens are now vaping, top Trump officials on Sept. 11 announced the administration was preparing to ban all nontobacco e-cigarette flavors, including mint and menthol. For vape shop owners, such a ban would mean they would need to close or fill their stores with other products.

After nearly two months of relative quiet, the White house last week abruptly canceled meetings it had scheduled with companies and advocates to discuss the policy. That, along with the publication of two studies showing that teens prefer flavored e-cigarettes, prompted many industry and regulatory onlookers to anticipate the administration would unveil its plan on Tuesday.

"The feeling when that 2 a.m. [meeting cancellation] email came in was that fight was over at the federal level, at least for now," said Gregory Conley, president of the industry-funded American Vaping Association.

But Tuesday came and went without any announcement. Conley said he still felt like it was over. That changed Friday.

Outside the White House, Trump told reporters he would share the plan this week. Trump said the U.S. intends to raise the federal smoking age to 21 and said the administration has "a lot of people to look at it, including jobs." To many, this suggested the administration is backing off its original plan.

Trump in a tweet Monday said he would meet with "representatives of the Vaping industry, together with medical professionals and individual state representatives, to come up with an acceptable solution to the Vaping and E-cigarette dilemma. Children's health & safety, together with jobs, will be a focus!"

"At that point, certainly you feel like you've accomplished something because you've helped amplify an issue many people think is very minor to the point where the president of the United States tweeting about it and wanting to meet with at least some people that care about an issue," Conley said.

Vape shop owners and e-cigarette users have been pushing hard against banning flavors, saying it would send them back to smoking cigarettes. Conservative groups have argued the ban would cost Trump the election. They and vaping advocates organized a #WeVapeWeVote rally outside the White House on Saturday that drew hundreds of people.

Liriano has been vocal about his opposition to banning flavors, which he says make up at least 90% of his store's sales. He calls the White House and writes emails to Trump and his local representatives every day, he said.

Dave Norris, owner of four vape shops in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area, opposes the Trump administration's plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
Source: Dave Norris

Dave Norris, owner of four vape shops around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said Trump's recent comments have given him a glimmer of hope, though he remains skeptical.

"I put very little confidence in what I see until I see something in writing," said Norris, 52, who said the most popular flavor at his stores is Foundation Vapor's sourberry blast, a proprietary blend he makes and sells at his shops.

Even if the Trump administration reverses course and loosens its planned restrictions, vape shops must confront another problem. Sales are plummeting amid panic over an outbreak of a vaping lung disease that has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed dozens.

Health officials are narrowing their focus on vaping products that contain THC, the substance that produces a high in marijuana. Store owners say the initial warnings confused consumers and scared them away. Health officials say they still cannot rule out nicotine vaping products as a possible cause.

April Meyers, president of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, said she has seen 15 of Connecticut's 90 vape shops close over the past month amid concerns about the illness. Sales in her own shop, Northeast Vapor, slid 62% in September and 43% in October compared with the averages for the months.

And regardless of whether the administration bans flavors, shop owners face a looming shake-up in the industry. By May, e-cigarette companies must submit regulatory applications for their products that are already on the market. The FDA will review the devices and liquids' safety, as well as their appeal to minors, before deciding whether the products can stay on the market.

Small manufacturers may not be able to afford conducting costly scientific studies or hiring expensive lawyers to help them file their applications.

"Even if [the administration] doesn't ban flavors," Meyers said, "we still have this issue to go through."

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Trump administration may soften stance on vaping ban