Even as the Trump administration backs away from its dramatic proposal to ban most flavored e-cigarettes — a policy change that many officials say is necessary to tackle the growing rates of underage vaping — cities and counties are weighing restrictions of their own.
Montgomery, a county of 1 million people, is reviewing three proposals to limit use and distribution of vape products. They include a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes within one mile of any school, library, park, playground or recreational facility, and a zoning amendment that would prohibit vape shops within a half-mile of any middle or high school. The latter, spearheaded by Montgomery County Council members Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-District 2), would force 19 of the county’s 22 vape shops to close or move within two years.
Vape retailers say such efforts are misdirected.
Owners argue that the bills unfairly “demonize” vape shops, would not effectively curb youth vaping and may negatively affect adults who rely on vaping to keep from smoking cigarettes — an alternative that experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree is more harmful.
More pressingly, owners say, these bills would cripple their businesses, which are already in crisis because of negative publicity on the dangers of e-cigarettes.
Three Montgomery County retailers said that since September, they have seen revenue drop by more than a third. In New York, some stores report a 70 percent decrease in sales. And in Massachusetts, where the governor implemented a four-month ban on sales of all vape products to in-state customers, stores are closing with thousands of dollars worth of devices and liquids in their inventories.
A handful of Montgomery retailers, including Vapor Worldwide’s Eric Fristchler, made impassioned testimonies at a public hearing last month, urging the council to reconsider its bills. But officials show little signs of budging.
“I see tweaks [to the bill]. . . . Just tweaks,” Albornoz said. “If anything, the bills do not go far enough.”
Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), lead sponsor of the flavor ban, said he is confident his bill has the support of his colleagues.
“It’s simple,” Riemer said. “We don’t set our health regulation according to the profitability of businesses creating health problems.”
Benjamin Lackey, owner of Vape Social in Gaithersburg, said he thinks the lawmakers are having an “emotional reaction” to news of the vaping-related illnesses.
He pointed out that Montgomery’s bills take aim at all vaping products and retailers, even though federal health officials have identified black market cannabis products — and more recently, vitamin E acetate — as the likely culprits for most of the illnesses and deaths.
There have been 15 cases of vaping-related illness in Maryland, one of which was in Montgomery. The victim, between 18 and 19 years old, experienced “significant respiratory distress” in August but stabilized after a week, said Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer.
Earlier this year, three students at Winston Churchill High School lost consciousness after using vaping products and were transported to a hospital emergency room, Gayles said.
Legislators point to these incidents as evidence of a growing youth vaping problem and accuse retailers of targeting underage users with easy-to-hide devices and fanciful e-liquid flavors. Local vape shop owners, however, say underage vapers generally buy on the black market or via the Internet. Legal shop owners, they say, are not responsible.
“Oh come on, look around,” said Lackey, 34, one recent afternoon, pointing to one of four signs in his store restricting sales — in accordance with state law — to customers 21 and older.
According to the county’s planning department, Vape Social is less than half a mile from Gaithersburg High School. Lackey said that in the five years since the store launched, in a low-profile storefront that opens onto a side corridor of Walnut Hill Shopping Center, he has never served an underage user.
A majority of his sales come from regular customers who are ages 25 to 45, he says.
“We deliberately chose to be in this back alley, tucked away. . . . We’ve done everything in our power to keep this stuff away from kids,” he said.
At Vapor Worldwide, said Fristchler, customers receive a 15 percent discount on purchases when they hand in their Juul products in favor of e-cigarettes that have lower levels of nicotine.
“We call it the Juul killer,” he said, smirking as he held up a plastic container filled with the black metallic devices.
Like Lackey, Fristchler, 47, said his customers are mostly adults. They include 57-year-old Chuck Pitts, who says he used to burn through three packs of Marlboro Lights every two days. Now, he relies on his vape and a menu of flavored e-liquids, including Honey Mellow, Sugar Tantrum and Cannoli Be Nuts.
“I haven’t had a cigarette in six years,” Pitts said proudly.
His habits, and those of other customers, could change, Fristchler warned, if a flavor ban — federal or local — takes effect.
“I’m a 50-year-old fat dude,” Fristchler said, adding a few years onto his actual age as he drew from his dark blue vaping device. “And my favorite flavor is Raspberry Blueberry Sunshine. What are you going to do?”
Lackey, who also vapes, said his regulars include a 70-year-old grandmother who refuses to smoke anything apart from bubble-gum-flavored e-liquids. Blanket bans, he argues, will inconvenience adult vapers without making a dent in the problem of youth vaping.
“Be real. If kids want to get something, they’ll get it,” he said.
Fristchler, along with a handful of other retailers, recently talked to Albornoz and said he was “encouraged” by what he heard. Lackey was less optimistic. Council members, he said, “already have preconceived notions of who we are, what we do.”
“Not one of them is listening to what we have to say,” he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Albornoz appeared determined to push for sweeping legislative action. Given the threats that vaping poses to Montgomery’s teens, he said, the county’s strategy should be singular: “Anything within reason to limit access.”
He added, “Everything we can to keep it out of their hands.”