As cities across the country have shut down in hopes of slowing the coronavirus, a few "essential" services have been allowed to remain open. Banks can fulfill financial needs. Restaurants can offer takeout. Pharmacies can have pain relievers on the shelves.
One type of business that has not always been allowed to stay running: vape shops. And that has become a source of frustration to a growing number of often-maligned vape shop owners and manufacturers in the burgeoning industry, who feel that it could lead to people returning to traditional and more harmful cigarettes.
In states where non-essential businesses have closed, convenience stores and gas stations have continued to sell traditional cigarettes, much to the chagrin of vape advocates.
"Unfortunately, cigarettes are well-stocked," said Rick Avila, the vice president of sales and marketing at Liquid Nicotine Wholesalers, one of the largest nicotine suppliers in the U.S. "If we cut off one and not the other, people will just go back to smoking."
Vape shop owners believe their stores are just as necessary as laundromats during an epidemic. They note that the open-system vapes they favor are not available in corner stores, which typically only have disposable products like JUUL and Puff Bars for purchase. In their view, vape shops sell effective smoking-cessation tools and provide a necessary public health service at a time of global stress and uncertainty.
Vapes are essentially "in the same category as nicotine replacement products," like patches or gum, said Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University and a longtime tobacco control expert. "It would make sense to treat them in a similar way to pharmacies."
In other countries, the vape industry has fared better amid global pandemic. The shops have been deemed "essential" in locked-down nations including Spain, Italy, France, and Switzerland. That hasn't been the case in the United Kingdom, which has so far led the global charge to promote vaping as a much safer alternative to smoking combustible cigarettes. There, like in the U.S., vape stores have largely been forced to close.
For some in the vape industry, the reaction in the U.S. has been more absurd than it's even been in the past. "To restrict access for people to have this harm-reduction product and have them return to cigarettes during a time when we're facing a respiratory pandemic doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me," said Dave Norris, who owns Blue Door Vaping, a string of vape shops in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
When Norris called me, he was driving through Pennsylvania, delivering orders to customers in the area. Some had been stockpiling with an apocalyptic fervor, concerned they wouldn't be able to get their hands on their favorite flavors or devices for months. And because the state mandated that Norris shutter his vape shops, he had no other way to get his inventory out to his patrons. With the state's new rules, he wasn't even sure whether what he was doing was legal. His license to conduct business there is for a physical location.
It's one of the reasons, he said, that it's not as simple as telling vapers to just order online during the coronavirus epidemic. Like other vape shop owners, he doesn't have the means to do it, and his workers would also suffer financially as a result. He wouldn't need them.
"I've never had an online presence, in part because the age verification is expensive," said Dan Donahue, who runs two shops under the name Good Karma Vapor in New Jersey.
Donahue had already been worried about losing his shops. He was anticipating up to an 80 percent loss in sales, when New Jersey's full-blanket flavor ban went into effect on April 20. (The ban is more severe than the federal sales moratorium on vaping products, which only forbids the flavored pods popular among teenagers.) The outbreak of COVID-19 might have just sped up the inevitable. When Governor Phil Murphy announced last week that he would be asking non-essential businesses to shut their doors for the time being, Donahue was torn. He didn't have a choice but to lay off his staff, hoping it would be temporary.
"As a person who uses vape products myself and has for nine years, I know how necessary it is to have them," he said. "My moral dilemma, though, was not having the personal protective equipment for my employees, to keep them and the public safe."
At the moment, however, like the rest of society, those in the vape industry face a much more real and immediate threat to their survival. Some, like Avila, are even having their factories and plants pump out hand sanitizer as well.
"The irony of all this is we have so many good people in this industry doing the right thing," Avila said, "and all we ever do is get bad-mouthed."
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