BOSTON - In September 2019, Governor Charlie Baker banned on all vapor products in the state. The Governor’s ban was in response to a number of mysterious lung illness cases that the CDC attributed to vaping. In December, the ban was lifted but with restrictions including banning sales of flavored e-cigarette products. The ban may have ended, but for many Massachusetts vape shop owners, the damage was done.
Countless vape shops were instantly forced to close. Some vape shops were able to withstand the ban by expanding into cigarette, cigar, and hookah sales. And some vape shops have re-opened selling vaporizers, CBD, glass bongs, and even hydroponic systems. Vaporizers from US companies like Mig Vapor are designed to vaporize dry herb. Indeed, while e-cigarettes may be regulated into oblivion, recreational cannabis is a life-line for many Massachusetts small businesses that would have otherwise been wiped out.
In the late summer of 2019, people started showing up in emergency rooms around the country with a mysterious lung illness. The illness presented with symptoms similar to lipoid pneumonia. Patients reported using a vapor product. As a result, the illness was labeled EVALI, short for e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury.
The scare set off a series of nationwide bans and warnings from the CDC advising the public to not use any vapor device including e-cigarettes. CDC Director Robert Redfield reported that 80% of the cases were in people under 35 and 72% were male. Governor Baker took the most aggressive action in the country by issuing an emergency order banning all vapor products.
The vaping industry protested claiming that it was black market THC products and not e-cigarettes that were to blame. However, those protests fell on deaf ears as vaping and flavor bans started popping up nationwide. But as fate would have it, the protests from the vaping industry appear to have been validated.
According to a January 28, 2020, CDC update of the vaping lung illness outbreak, vitamin E acetate found in THC products has been confirmed as the major source responsible for the outbreak including 60 deaths. Furthermore, it appears that the black market THC oil made by drug dealers is chiefly responsible. No one should be buying any THC products off the street.
Despite the CDC findings, many public health officials are still advising against using e-cigarettes. Dr. Michael Siegel from Boston University's School of Public Health feels that it is vitally important for state officials to set the record straight. “Just be honest and to tell the public that this outbreak is being caused by THC vaping products,” Siegel said. “The state has still not made that announcement. … And I think that's inappropriate because we know that Vitamin E acetate oil is the primary, if not the only, culprit here. And I think that the state needs to be honest and basically just tell the public the truth.”
There is a marked difference between cannabis oil vaporizers and electronic cigarettes. Unlike vape liquid with nicotine in e-cigarettes, oil does not vaporize. In addition, there are no known oils or vitamin E acetate used in e-cigarette products. There is widespread concern that the confusing warning has caused the public to pin the blame on the wrong culprit. As a result of the confusion, the public has not been properly warned about the dangers of black market THC oil.
In fact, the last reported death in Massachusetts was recorded on January 8, 2020. Even after the vaping ban, and after updates from the CDC, it appears that the public is not getting the message about THC oil. Instead, e-cigs have been vilified as public enemy number one. In addition to the public not being properly warned about the real danger, Siegel worries that condemning e-cigs is increasing cigarette smoking.
“I think that there is pretty strong evidence that during the time that this ban was in effect, cigarette consumption actually increased in Massachusetts,” Siegel said. “And that indicates that a lot of ex-smokers, when their vaping products were taken off the shelves, they actually went back to smoking.”
Pete Patel owns Liquid Smoke and Vape in Allston. When the ban was announced, he did not think that he would be able to stay open. Vaping products were his business’s bread and butter. But Patel did stay open through the four months of the ban by offering an increased inventory of traditional tobacco products like cigarettes and hookah.
Art Baden, one of Patel’s customers, said that the ban worked out well for him because he was thinking of quitting vaping anyway. Baden went back to smoking cigarettes. “I just got back to cigarettes a little more”, Baden said. The Governor and his administration may not have intended to cause vapers to go back to cigarettes, but that appears to be the outcome for people like Baden.
Meanwhile, other vape shop owners are focusing on the recreational cannabis market. Although Vape Daddy’s in Newton was forced to close two of their four shops, owner Stacy Poritzki has found a wat to survive. Although the ban has been lifted, 90% of her business relied on flavored vapor products. With the flavor ban, Poritzki has turned her eyes to the cannabis accessory market.
Vape Daddy’s is rebranding as a “plant to pipe” store focusing on the recreational cannabis market. Selling products like pipes, bongs, hydroponic systems, and smoking accessories. With the vapor business decimated, marijuana-related products are Poritzky’s Plan B. “There is no plan C. Hopefully this will work,” she said.
Vape shops are rebranding and selling other tobacco products in a desperate fight for survival. Shops large and small relied on flavors. Tobacco flavored vapor products, vape mods, and vape tanks are not enough to keep the lights on. However, in short order, the mods, tanks, and even the tobacco flavored vape liquids may be gone. And this time not because of a ban, but because of the impending FDA PMTA application deadline.
Vapor companies have until May of 2020 to submit PMTA applications for all vapor products. Each application can cost as much as $1 million dollars. That is one PMTA application per product. For example, if a vape juice company sells a tobacco flavored e-liquid in 0mg, 6mg, 12mg, and 18mg nicotine levels, they would have to submit four separate PMTAs for each nicotine level. There are very few, if any, companies that can afford the PMTA process regardless of the quality of their products. The notable exception is Big Tobacco.
The e-cigs you see in gas stations and C-stores are usually the Big Tobacco brands. Those big brands rely on the power of their mighty distribution channels as opposed to flavors. The Big Tobacco e-cigs like Vuse, Blu and JUUL have the money to pay for the PMTA process. The independent American e-cig companies and imported vape brands will likely disappear. Big Tobacco will then have virtually the entire vapor market all to itself.
Between the fallout of the state’s four-month ban, flavor restrictions, and impending PMTA apocalypse, the vaping industry is going to look very different by summertime. It is possible that the only e-cigs left available will be the Big Tobacco brands sold in the same corner store that sells cigarettes. The products that vape shops relied upon for the better part of a decade will be a memory. You’ll have to go to Europe or Canada to see the latest vape mod and tank.
Vape shops will need to follow in the footsteps of Liquid Smoke and Vape as well as Vape Daddy’s. Expanding into either recreational marijuana accessories or back to good old fashioned chemically treated combustible tobacco cigarettes. The irony, of course, is that the public officials and anti-vaping activists that associated vaping with Big Tobacco will end up wiping out everyone except Big Tobacco!
Dramatic change is coming to the vapor industry. The boutique brands, vape shops, and the vape community culture including enthusiasts blowing gigantic vape clouds will be gone. Soon to be a bygone memory. Hanging out at the vape shop comparing mods and vape flavors will surrender to grabbing a Vuse cartridge while filling up on gas. Or worse, buying a pack of cigarettes. One thing is for sure, Big Tobacco wins.