Standing behind a glass case fully stocked with disposable electronic cigarettes in a plethora of flavors from various brands, Hassan Sobh couldn't help wondering on Thursday if the business he launched five months ago would survive becoming Donald Trump's latest target.
A day earlier, the White House announced the feds were moving toward a national ban of flavored e-cigarettes amid rising use among minors and a dramatic increase in lung-related illnesses believed to be related to vaping, including at least six reported deaths. "Vaping has become a very big business, as I understand it, a giant business in a short period of time," Trump said from the Oval Office. "But we can't allow people to get sick and we can’t allow our youth to be so affected."
Sobh, the owner of Miami Hookah Headz, a smoke and vape shop in Miami Beach's tourist-driven Art Deco Historic District, said a majority of customers prefer disposable pens, pods, and e-liquids in the variety of fun, non-tobacco flavors that have catapulted the vaping business in recent years, generating $2.6 billion and spawning roughly 20,000 shops like Sobh's across the country, according to the New York Times. "About 50 percent of my shop’s inventory are vape products,” Sobh said. “And 80 percent of my sales are vape products. A lot of the tourists who come by don't have these flavors where they live, so they stock up."
If the ban goes through, Sobh warned, the Trump administration could be imposing economic ruin on himself and thousands of other small business entrepreneurs who jumped on the vape cloud to success. According to the anti-smoking group Truth Initiative, vape shops account for 36.4 percent of e-cigarette sales, convenience stores and gas stations represent 31.8 percent, and the remainder is purchased online and via "other retail channels."
On Washington Avenue, where Miami Hookah Headz competes with at least a dozen other vape and smoke product proprietors, the ban would lead to empty storefronts on almost every block, Sobh argued. "If this ban is for real, it's going to destroy my business and others," he said. "You will have more closings on Washington Avenue. It's bad for us, bad for the city, and bad for our customers."
Of course, upending entire industries through knee-jerk, reactionary policy decisions is a hallmark of the Trump administration. His trade war with China has put farmers across the country in potentially dire straits, resulted in outerwear companies paying $1.8 billion more in tariffs, per CNBC, and may have killed 450,000 new job positions by year’s end, according to Moody's Analytics.
There is at least some data indicating a real policy problem here, including numbers suggesting more teens are using electronic cigarettes and vaporizers. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 1 percent of middle and high school age girls and 2 percent of middle and high school age boys were users in 2011. By last year, those figures had jumped to 19 percent and 23 percent, respectively. And 68 percent of high school age e-cig users vaped flavors. Also, JUUL Labs, which accounts for more than two thirds of the American e-cig market, is facing numerous legal complaints and congressional inquiries for its alleged role in the teen vaping "epidemic."
Likewise, the dangers of vaping are starting to gain traction amid at least 450 cases of vape-related illnesses nationwide—despite public-health experts not yet pinpointing the root cause. Months ago, JUUL stopped putting its flavored products in retail stores, but those e-cigarettes can be purchased on the company's website.
In a San Francisco Chronicle interview following Trump's announcement, JUUL CEO Kevin Burns said he wasn't surprised by the White House's hardline against his industry, because competitors filled the void with their own flavored vape pens and pods that appeals to youths. He added that JUUL, which also sells tobacco-flavored products that would likely not be captured by any federal ban, would comply with whatever rules and regulations the FDA comes up with. The company is also starting to make moves to offset any potential American profit losses by entering bigger markets: JUUL recently moved to launch online storefronts in China—the world's largest tobacco consumption market with more than 300 million smokers, according to Reuters—via e-commerce platforms owned by Alibaba Group and JD.com.
But the mood was decidedly less bullish at Samaya Smoke Shop, another vape retailer on Washington Avenue. There, a store manager named Alex—who declined to provide a last name because he wasn't authorized to speak for the owner—said if the problem is teen vaping, then health and law enforcement officials should focus on cracking down on vendors and suppliers who sell to children. After all, teens can order online from companies like Juul by simply entering age verification information for their parents or adult relatives, he argued. "They buy a bunch for themselves and also to sell to other kids," Alex said.
It should be noted that JUUL, which has taken a public stance against teen vaping, recently implemented new initiatives to curtail underage use of its products, including, it said, requiring retailers to use a software program that doesn't allow a sale to go through until the consumer's age is verified by scanning a government-issued ID.
Bu Alex said he and his co-workers would pack everything up and get rid of it once an FDA ban went into effect.
"We may even have to close the shop," he said. "E-cigarettes are 40 percent of our business and 80 percent of the e-cigarette business are the flavors. People don't just want the tobacco or menthol ones."
Alex argued Trump was trying to score points for the 2020 election, since anti-vaping sentiment crosses party lines. But Trump lost him as a potential voter, he said. "I just registered yesterday because of this ban," he explained. "So did a friend of mine who also has a shop on Washington Avenue."
Bandar Sibai, who was tending his father's Smoke Vapor Shop three blocks north of Samaya, agreed. "I think Trump is trying to gain a little leverage in the upcoming election," Sibai said. "Right now, vaping is a major topic of discussion. But all this over six deaths? What is that, like .0001 percent of the population?"
For comparison, cigarette smoking causes an average of 1,300 deaths a day and more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control.
Back at Miami Hookah Headz, Sobh suspected Big Tobacco could be working the White House behind the scenes—even though Altria, the company that owns Marlboro and other cigarette brands, has a 35 percent stake in JUUL. "Big Tobacco is losing millions and millions of dollars because of the vaping industry," Sobh said. "That's what it's really about. But it's the little guys that take the hit."
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