For 30 years, Cheryl Richter was a pack-a-day smoker. She'd tried everything to kick the habit but nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until her first electronic cigarette. She hasn't bought a pack since.
Not only that, but since she had this road-to-Damascus experience, she's pretty much devoted her life to vaping, which to her, is more than a business. It's her passion and way of helping people. In 2009, Richter partnered with her brother's friend, Chris Mikovits, to sell batteries and atomizers—which turn the liquid inside e-cigarettes into a vapor—that they imported from China.
They quickly introduced products of their own. Mikovits created "drip tips" for e-cigarettes, as the devices were leaking and leaving nicotine on people's lips. Richter, who'd always been fond of baking and didn't like the taste of the e-liquid coming from China, began devising her own recipes. She spent two years perfecting one for pumpkin pie-flavored juice. "I was just absolutely nuts about getting it right," Richter said.
Richter and Mikovits now run a retail store called Vape Den in Port Chester, New York, as well as an online wholesale business. But Richter and Mikovits are more than just entrepreneurs—they are advocates for vaping as an alternative to cigarette smoking and defenders against what they see as regulatory excess.
"It's just something that I'm extremely passionate about, and now having done this for so long and seeing some of my customers that have been smoke-free for so long and, hearing their stories," Richter said, "I know I'm doing the right thing."
They have travelled to Capitol Hill on multiple occasions to talk to legislators, crusading for an evolving industry whose customers seem to share more than just a habit, but also a sense of mission and community.
"I think that in 20 years from now when the books are written about this, this is going to be the pivotal time in history."
New rules regulating e-cigarettes—which will require warning labels, ingredient and product listings; the pre-market review of any products that were not on the market as of February 15, 2007; and a ban on sales to people under 18, among other things—were finalized last month. Small entrepreneurs in this industry fear that they may not survive the costly proposed measures. For example, Richter said that every e-liquid she makes and sells—each flavor, size, and nicotine level—would need to be approved for sale. This means approving 75 flavors at six different milligram levels, with cost estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to over $1 million per application.
Richter said advocacy brings together the vaping community, especially at her shop, where it often comes up in discussions. "We feel vulnerable almost, we feel that we're in a fight, so that kind of bonds the community as well," she said in December, before the regulations were released. And, she contends, a lot of people agree with her.
She cited the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, who, in an address to members of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association during a fly-in to Capitol Hill in February, went so far as to claim that the millions of vapers in the US could be a deciding factor when it comes to selecting a president. "That is a huge voting block, and they are single-issue voters," Richter said, adding that vape shops across the country—including hers—have been registering people to vote. In 2014, she said National Vapers Club compiled a database where any state or federal legislation related to e-cigarettes could be browsed to determine the bills' co-sponsors, who voted for each bill, and how. The group plans to do this again in 2016.
In response to the regulations, she said a coalition has formed between consumer vaping and industry associations—a total of seven—and that together they are looking into what kind of litigation they might pursue. At her shop, Cherry Vape, Richter is focusing on effecting change by educating her clients.
"I think that in 20 years from now when the books are written about this, this is going to be the pivotal time in history, right now: you know, what did we do, what did we do when the government said, no, you have to keep smoking," Richter said.
"Did we roll over, or did we prevail with a fight?"