Janna Collingwood moved from one shelf to another Tuesday at her vape shop in Portland, wiping down the shelves that 24 hours earlier were packed with bottles of now-banned flavored nicotine liquid.
“I’m feeling betrayed by my government,” Collingwood said, picking up a box filled with e-juice flavors like dragon fruit menthol, mango and lemonade.
Collingwood’s store, The Vape Spot, is just one of the e-cigarette shops reeling from Gov. Kate Brown’s six-month ban on all flavored vaping products.
The restrictions bar retailers from selling nicotine liquids that taste like anything but tobacco as well as cannabis liquids that taste like anything but marijuana or that contain any chemicals not derived from marijuana. Flavored liquids with CBD for vaping also are banned.
The ban began Tuesday and follows a growing epidemic of severe lung illnesses connected to vaping.
On the same day, the state announced another two vaping-related illness in Oregon, bringing the total to 11. Federal investigators have tallied nearly 1,300 cases in 49 states and 26 deaths, including two in Oregon, linked to vaping.
State and federal health officials have connected most of the illnesses to vape oils with THC, the key psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, not nicotine liquids. And that, owners of Oregon vape shops say, means they’re being targeted unfairly.
Collingwood and others are particularly perplexed by what they see as hypocrisy on the part of the state. They say nicotine vapes have helped countless people get off cigarettes. Tobacco products are known to cause about 480,000 deaths a year in the United States, dwarfing the deaths so far linked to vape products.
Unless a court blocks the ban or retailers get outside help, it appears virtually certain that stores dedicated to nicotine e-juice will suffer.
Brown’s office said her “top priority” with the ban is to protect Oregonians. Lax oversight by the Food and Drug Administration means little information exists about what vaping does to people, governor’s spokesman Charles Boyle said in an email.
The state’s Vaping Public Health Workgroup, created by the governor’s executive order, will conduct research on potential consumer warnings, ingredient disclosures for customers and product testing, Boyle said.
Marijuana retailers didn’t seem to worry nearly as much about the ban, primarily because the industry has already taken a hit in light of the panic about the lung illness epidemic.
In the absence of concrete information about what’s killing people, a crackdown on flavored nicotine vape products is one of the few steps authorities can take to address a well-known problem related to vaping: youth addiction to nicotine.
The Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County have for years wanted to take action to cut flavored e-juice sales, citing a rise in youth use of nicotine. Nearly 1 in 4 Oregon 11th graders surveyed this year said they vaped, up from about 1 in 7 in 2017. In 2013, according to the state, only 1 in 20 11th graders used e-cigarettes or other devices to vape.
Flavored vape products, a state health warning said, “are especially popular among youth.”
Politicians across the country have been clamoring for years for the Food and Drug Administration to do something. The New York Times reported Monday that the agency had for 10 years sat on laws that gave it the power to rein in the industry but failed to do so.
Collingwood said she’s not sure how her business will get by. Out of the 196 vape flavors she had Monday night, only 11 remained after she cleared her shelves for the ban.
“It’s going to get bumpy,” she said.
A vape shop in Eugene, Urban Vapes, went from 142 flavors to two.
Eight customers came in Tuesday morning to Urban Vapes, said general manager Matt Rogers, but none bought any vape juice after seeing the flavors they liked gone from the shelves.
“I don’t think Kate Brown understands what’s going on,” Rogers said, citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what most victims of the lung illness reported using.
Almost 60% of the shop’s business consisted of flavored e-juice, Rogers said, with tobacco-flavored juice and vape devices accounting for the rest. The shop will probably have to cut staff and could close, he said.
David Nettles, the owner of another Eugene shop, is almost certain that he’ll have to close the store he opened in 2013.
Nettles, 64, said he’s been talking to his wife, who doesn’t work, about their options. They’re also raising two grandchildren, 12 and 13, he said.
“This is how I take care of my family,” Nettles said.
Numerous Oregon vape shops have raised the possibility of filing suit to block the governor’s order. A state court blocked a similar flavored vaping ban in New York earlier this month, and a federal hearing was scheduled Tuesday on a broad vaping ban in Massachusetts.
In Michigan, a state judge granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday to vape shop owners who opposed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s flavored vaping ban, temporarily stopping the state from enforcing emergency rules banning the sale of the products.
In Oregon, though, there does not appear to be any challenges yet to the ban.
Neither casual customers nor the nation’s top scientists seem to know for sure what kinds of vape products are dangerous.
For more than a month of the epidemic, the going theory was that oils in THC vape juice were collecting in victim’s lungs. But Mayo Clinic doctors found that a recent set of victims showed telltale signs of burns from toxic chemicals, upending that theory.
Pot shops won’t be hit by the ban nearly as hard as nicotine shops, not by a long shot. Only a small percentage of their market is in flavored THC vape juice.
Jeremy Kwit is CEO of Substance Market, a marijuana store with three locations in Bend. He said his shops held a “fire sale” of steeply discounted flavored vaping products in anticipation of the ban, then began returning unsold products to suppliers late last week.
Just 10% of the vaping products Substance sold had banned flavorings in them, according to Kwit, which is in line with the state’s estimate of how much flavored THC vapes make up of Oregon’s total recreational marijuana market.
“There’s been an overall depression in sales of the entire category because consumers are concerned and nervous,” Kwit said.
While Kwit said he supports efforts to ensure product safety, he resents Oregon’s highly regulated marijuana sector getting lumped in with the largely unregulated nicotine vaping market.
“The only two things those different types of vapes have in common is the word vape,” Kwit said. He said products sold in his store are subject to stringent testing and that suppliers are providing lists of ingredients, so shops and consumers know exactly what’s in the products.
Colleen Valley owns the Apothecaria in Cottage Grove. She said she was selling relatively few flavored marijuana vaping products anyway and that the impact on her business has been less than she anticipated.
“We’ve been actually steering away from flavors, just in general,” Valley said. “We were looking at unflavored products because we felt it was more true to the cannabis experience.”
While some cannabis retailers have decried the flavored vaping ban, Valley said she was relieved the governor didn’t order the broad vaping ban health authorities had proposed.
“We are of the opinion that the black market is where a lot of the problem is,” she said. She said a broad ban would “make things even worse.”
After the governor issued her order earlier this month some vape shop owners said they anticipated a court challenge to overturn the ban on flavored products. The Oregon Department of Justice said Tuesday it has seen no indication of legal action against the governor’s action so far.
Penalties for any shop selling flavored vaping products could reach up to $500 per day, per violation, according to the new regulations. Retailers also could lose their licenses.
Oregon Liquor Control Commission officials say they expect to immediately begin issuing penalties to marijuana shops that break the rules, though it may allow some latitude to those that aren’t aware a specific product contains banned flavorings.
Nicotine shop enforcement will be tougher.
Oregon is one of the few states without a system to oversee all tobacco retailers. The Oregon Health Authority said it will partner with local health departments to enforce the moratorium.
— The Detroit News contributed to this report.