There are two bills working their way through the state Legislature that have the inarguable good intention of keeping potentially dangerous products out of the hands of the underage.
But, say those closest to the ever growing vape industry, the logic is flawed and the bills would do nothing but drive more than 700 vape shops across the state out of business and virtually eliminate a method thousands have used to quit smoking cigarettes.
The first bill would ban the sale of any flavored e-liquid outside of the straight up tobacco and menthol flavors. The second would place a 95 percent wholesale tax on all vape products including mods, the boxes that house the batteries and the software that runs the device, and the tanks, coils and liquid.
“If the flavor ban goes through, and the tax doesn’t, we’d be out of business. If the tax goes through, and the flavor ban doesn’t, we may have a shot but it would be difficult,” said John Hobb, co-owner of Interstate Vapor on Delaware Avenue in Delmar.
He and co-owner, Leo Carusone, Hobb’s stepfather, opened the shop about four years ago and have heard countless stories from customers about how vaping was the only thing that kept them away from another traditional cigarette. Carusone, a 28-year, pack and a half a day smoker, is one of them.
“I tried everything . The patch, the gum, Chantix and one year my parents gave me a hypnosis session for my birthday. Nothing worked. And then my father sent me an email about an e-cigarette and I thought I would give it a shot. I ended up smoking less and less and after about a month I didn’t smoke anymore.”
He said some four months went by without a smoke and he bummed one from somebody, and gagged.
“I haven’t had one since,” he said of that last cigarette some seven years ago. “And we hear stories like that all day long. We get those testimonials day in and day out but, obviously, the legislators in Albany do not.”
About five years ago, Smokers Choice, which has some 70 outlets in New York and Pennsylvania, added a smokeless section to many of its stores, including the one on Route 9 in Latham, to feature e-cigarette supplies and liquids. Now, the sale of vapor related items makes up for at least 25 percent of its sales.
“It would probably kill it. We would probably have to shut it down. We can’t survive just selling cigarette flavored liquid. It will be cheaper to buy a pack of cigarettes,” said Rebecca Schaffer, a seven-year employee. “The flavors taste good, and it helps customers not smoke. It helps me not smoke. I smoke menthols, and if I vape a menthol liquid it makes me want to smoke a menthol cigarette.
“I don’t want the kids vaping. You have to be 21 to walk through the doors anyway so it’s not like we are selling to kids.”
While the legislators are not looking at those who use vaping to quit smoking, they are likely focused on statistics that says vaping among teens is skyrocketing.
Late last year, the federal government banned the sale of flavored e-liquid by any establishment that doesn’t have a locally imposed age restriction. In Albany County the smoking age is 21, in others it is 18. Soon it is expected to be 21 across the state. In other words, you have to be 21 to even walk into a vape shop in New York state if they want to sell flavored liquid. To comply, convenience stores across the state are now in the process of removing flavored e-liquids from their shelves.
Still, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, in 2018 nearly one in five high school students and one in 20 middle school students report using an e-cigarette. E-cigarette use among teens has increased from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent from 2017 to 2018, or about 2.1 million to 3.6 million. In 2011, just 0.6 percent of middle schoolers and 1.5 percent of high schoolers used e-cigarettes.
Just one in 30 middle schoolers, or 1.8 percent, report smoking traditional cigarettes in 2018, and about two of every 25 high schoolers, or 8.1 percent, reported smoking a cigarette in 2018, a decrease from 15.8 percent in 2011.
The decrease of teens smoking cigarettes is certainly to be applauded. The CDC says nearly nine of 10 adult daily smokers first try a cigarette before the age of 18, and 98 percent before 26.
Nicotine is one of more than 5,000 chemicals found in a cigarette and it is what addicts people to what is the world’s leading cause of preventable deaths — some six million die each year from smoking. But, it’s widely accepted, nicotine does not kills people, it’s the at least 60 other chemicals that are known carcinogens.
Nicotine is one of just four “ingredients” found in any vape liquid and the level of nicotine varies depending on the taste or desire of the consumer. In most vape liquids it is mixed with propylene glycol, a flavor carrier found in many food products, vegetable glycerine, which produces the vapor, and food grade flavoring.
That said, vaping has not been around long enough for science to determine the health impacts of mixing the four ingredients, heating them until they produce a vapor and sucking it into your lungs.
One study by England’s Royal College of Physicians did find that “although it is not possible to precisely quantify the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarettes, the available data suggest that they are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of those associated with smoked tobacco products and may well be substantially lower than this figure.”
Still, while it is possible to get e-liquid with a 0 nicotine, most main stream liquids have nicotine and nicotine is an addictive substance. Nobody wants to see teenagers get addicted to anything so the concern is real, if not misdirected.
The most popular e-cigarette among teens is not the mod-style boxes with refillable tanks that come in all sorts of funky shapes and sizes but the pod style vaping systems like the Juul.
When using such a system, the consumer buys pods full of liquid and when the liquid is spent, the pod is tossed and replaced with a new pod.
The Juul is small, though, and it is easily hidden from parents and teachers. The liquid also has extremely high levels of nicotine, upwards towards 50 milligrams per milliliter compared to a standard high of 24 in bottled liquid.
Altria, the maker of Marlboro, just purchased a 35 percent stake in Juul for $12.8 billion and it has raised eyebrows. Marlboro claims it has been seeking ways to get out of the traditional cigarette business, and Juul’s marketing strategy bills itself as a safe alternative to smoking. Many who follow the industry, though, think Juul is simply following Big Tobacco’s lead of making enormous profits by hooking consumers on nicotine.
“The legislators look at Juul and they want to ban everything,” Hobb said. “Juul is nothing more than a smoking replacement. Vaping can help you get off cigarettes, and you can step down your nicotine until you don’t crave it any longer. It offers people a way to quit everything all together.”
Hobb and Carusone say it’s not unusual for people to start with 24 mgs per ml, and gradually stepping down to 0. Levels of nicotine before quitting all together. The wisdom of stepping it down, though, is often lost on youth.
“Every week I have to kick kids out of the store and why wouldn’t I? I don’t want to sell to kids and I don’t have to sell to kids,” Hobb said. “I have to check everyone’s ID, just like I’m sure the liquor store next door does too.”
Dollars and cents
According to the World Health Organization, the number of traditional smokers decreased globally from 1.14 billion 2011 to about 1.1 billion in 2018. The number of people choosing to vape, however, has spiked from seven million to more than 35 million. The global vape market is now worth an estimated $22.6 billion, up from $4.2 billion just five years ago. It is expected to almost double to $44.6 billion by 2023, according to an Associated Press article citing data generated by Research and Markets, a worldwide statistics company.
It’s difficult to determine how much is spent in New York state on e-cigarettes, but it is growing by the week. And, while New York is famous for taxing everything, there is not any so called “Sin Tax” on e-cigarettes like the $4.35 per pack of traditional pack of smokes. Instead, there is an 4 percent state sales tax and up to a 4 percent county sales tax placed on vaping liquid and supplies.
“The state realizes they are losing some tax money so they are trying to do a 95 percent tax instead of something reasonable,” Hobb said.
Of course, the knee jerk reaction to the consumer is to hop on Amazon and buy supplies from online retailers. How New York will try and regulate the interstate sale of flavored e-liquid into this state is anyone’s guess. How it will enforce the ban is truly a mystery.
“Arkansas tried it and it didn’t work, and all this will do is put us out of business and people will spend their money in a different state while sitting at home on their computer,” Carusone said of other vape supplies like mods and tanks and batteries. “These lawmakers look at this and say ‘this is great it will raise all this money’ but in fact it will do the exact opposite.”
Also, as is often cited by lawmakers and politicians, small business is the backbone of any economy and, as Hobb pointed out, there is a pretty cool small business community in downtown Delmar.
“When you have the small shops like this, it improves business for the other small shops in town,” he said. “They stop here and go to the pharmacy or McCarols or the flower shop. Having a business in town helps other businesses.”