The vaping industry finds itself on the cusp of destruction, as seven states have outlawed the sale of flavored vape products in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries over the past five months.
There is still no clear federal policy on the fate of flavored vaping products; in fact, there appears to be backpedaling from the White House on the issue. President Donald Trump backed out of signing a national ban on flavored vaping products, in favor of meeting with more vaping industry leaders and health officials, according to the Associated Press.
The blossoming industry isn’t safe yet, however, as Oregon, Washington, Montana, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and the city of San Francisco have all passed laws which ban flavored vaping products. Vaping retailers may be safe from a national ban for now, but they must contend with state legislatures to protect their most important source of revenue.
In Utah, with the vape ban temporarily repealed, the industry can continue as normal for now, but this isn’t the last fight this growing market will face.
The e-cigarette market was valued at over $11 billion in 2018 alone, with the growing market worth to reach more than $18 billion by 2024, according to Mordor Intelligence and PS Market Research, two major market analysis firms.
The industry is fast growing, as current smokers begin to turn away from traditional cigarettes, looking for what they see as a healthier option. The trend is seen everywhere, even within Utah, where 5.6% of adults report vaping, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.
Of the approximately 177,016 adults in Utah who vape, many are college-aged consumers, which e-cigarette retailers know and market to. With more than 30 retailers within 5 miles of Salt Lake Community College campuses, students would likely be the first to notice an all-out ban on flavored vaping products.
Alyssa Brady, a business major at SLCC, says she’s concerned about losing access to flavors from a ban and believes tobacco companies may see vaping as a threat due to its massive growth. She also acknowledges that some vape companies brand their products like popular candy companies do, appealing to a wide variety of consumers, including teens.
“I feel like knowing what the candy already tastes like encourages underage kids … to try it out,” she says.
An employee at Murray Vapes, Sydney Jones also commented that curbing underage use of e-cigarettes is tied more closely to accessibility instead of flavor options.
“People think flavorings are targeting kids, but you walk into the liquor store, and they have cotton candy flavored vodka,” she says. “It’s not about the flavor, it’s about keeping kids out of the vape shops.”
Vaping behemoth, Juul, was recently at the center of these allegations against the vaping industry, as San Francisco outlawed the sale of vaping products in June due to a rising number of teens using Juuls. The city’s supervisor, Shamann Walton, said in an interview with NPR that he’s “disgusted” at the actions of Juul and similar companies regarding their marketing practices towards teens.
According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of high school seniors reported vaping nicotine in 2018, up from 16% in 2015. Similar increases were also found in sophomores and college-aged students. In fact, between 2017 and 2018, Pew reported that it was “among the greatest one-year increase for any substance asked about since the survey was first administered in 1975.”
The data suggests that the vaping industry must combat underage use while also potentially losing its largest source of revenue in flavored vaping products. And as illness around vaping continues to grow, usage among teens has added to the recent public health concerns around vaping products.
The true cost of vaping
With 2,179 reported cases of lung injuries due to vaping, the industry is facing a public relations nightmare. At least one Utah store is attempting to not only educate the public about vaping, but also curb underage use.
Salt Lake Vapors, the second dedicated vape shop to open in the state, commits to not selling any products that would overtly appeal to minors. Vaping, says store owner Matthew Murphey, should be used as a healthier alternative to smoking, not something trendy.
“If we found out that vaping nicotine was more harmful than tobacco, then I’d sell out tomorrow,” he says.
Murphey operates two Salt Lake Vapors locations, one in Holladay and another in West Valley City. He’s been part of the Utah vape scene since its infancy and reports seeing a shift in culture around vaping.
“Five years ago, I wanted Salt Lake Vapors locations all across the valley – but I’m out in the industrial district because of zoning,” he says. “And now, you have a vape shop in the middle of Sugar House.”
The change in culture plays a part in the rise of vaping and its accessibility to minors, Murphey says. He also believes mixed-retail stores selling the popular pod-system style of e-cigarette are more to blame.
Salt Lake Vapors doesn’t sell pod systems, which are a closed nicotine delivery system like Juul, and juices that could be mistaken for candy. This, along with checking every customer’s ID, is their plan to combat underage use of vaping products within their store.
Murphey maintains that underage vaping is an issue his store is committed to fighting, but he’s concerned about other stores that bend the rules.
“I like that they’re going after the convenience stores, because I know vape shops will ID,” he says.
The recent vape ban in Utah primarily affected mixed-retail stores like gas stations, but there are also some vape shops that are considered “mixed-retail” even though their primary source of revenue is vaping-related products. Murphey says these stores manage to keep their mixed-retail status due to a loophole added into the purchase.
This creates an issue of accessibility as mixed retail stores can disregard Utah zoning law 17-50-333, which states that any store which has more than 35% of its revenue from tobacco products cannot be built within 600 feet of a residence or another tobacco retailer, and must be 1,000 feet from a community center.
This means that shops with a mixed-retail status can open shop essentially anywhere. Not only does this allow underage users to have more accessibility to vaping products, but it gives these businesses more opportunity for foot traffic, something Salt Lake Vapors wasn’t offered.
“We’re already getting hit three ways. One, the bans. Two, big tobacco companies. Three, big pharmaceutical companies,” he says. “Juice is around 80-90% of our business, we rely almost solely on it.”
If a flavored juice ban were passed, it would clip the wings of the growing industry. Murphey reports that there are already some manufacturers searching for loopholes if the ban were to be enacted, such as selling the flavoring separately from the e-juice, but he suspects it may not be enough.
An employee at Salt Lake Vapors, Adam Christensen, remains hopeful that the vaping industry could survive a ban.
“If it does happen, vaping will never go away. They can’t kill vaping,” he says. “We always pride ourselves on giving someone a safer alternative to smoking.”
The cost of losing flavored vaping products could mean a rise in cigarette sales, Christensen predicts. He suggests that, by giving a smoker the choice between continuing to use cigarettes or tobacco flavored e-liquid, most will just continue to smoke.
“It’s like giving an alcoholic bourbon-flavored water,” he says.
The vaping industry’s future is still undecided. With a potential flavor ban on vaping products on the horizon, and an outcry from the public to stop underage use, the industry is headed towards a tumultuous future. The 5.6% of Utah e-cigarette users are waiting to see if their habit can continue, while local business owners are trying to strategize to keep their doors open.
“We’re all scared,” Murphey says.