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Vapor store owners cast wary eye on proposed e-cig rule

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | June 27, 2020 1:00 AM

Last week the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed the adoption of a new rule that would eliminate flavored electronic smoking devices from Montana commerce — a measure local business owners in the Flathead Valley say will likely shutter their smoke and vapor shops if it goes into effect.

The new rule would prohibit individuals and businesses from advertising, marketing, selling or otherwise distributing flavored electronic cigarettes to Montanans, but would not prohibit tobacco-flavored or marijuana-infused products. Officials with the state health department hope the proposal will tackle “the epidemic” of youth usage of e-cigarettes they say “has increased at an astronomical rate and shows no signs of abating” and “exposes youth to numerous adverse health effects.”

Nearly 60% of Montana high school students and 30% of middle school students have tried vaping and in 1-in-10 high school students in the state reported vaping daily in 2019, according to a press release, which also included insights from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that state 96% of youth ages 12 to 17 who initiated e-cigarette use started with a flavories product and 70% of those individuals report the flavors are the reason they use e-cigarettes. According to a document outlining the proposed rule, there are over 15,000 flavors available on the marketplace and none of them have been reviewed by the FDA.

In a prepared statement, Todd Harwell, the public health and safety division administrator for the health department, said “the best way never to get addicted to nicotine is not to start. Sadly, most individuals who are currently addicted to nicotine started using these products before the age of 18, and youth are enticed by the flavors.”

The rule goes on to highlight myriad reasons flavored e-cigarettes should be prohibited and outlines several alternative rules the department considered prior to proposing this one. For example, the department considered introducing a measure that would restrict the use of all e-cigarettes, including those that are tobacco-favored — an option that is exempt from in the current proposed rule. However, that option in particular — to eliminate all e-cigarettes — was rejected for several reasons, including because it “would be costlier for small businesses.”

But department officials say the banning of only flavored products should soften the financial blow to small businesses, particularly small-scale vapor shops. The department estimates those that formerly preferred flavored e-cigarettes will transition to tobacco-flavored products instead. This transition, according to the rule proposal, “will at least partially offset the lost revenue stream” to small businesses.”

However, several smoke and vapor shop owners in the Flathead Valley say the measure will still severely impact their businesses, even if it does allow them to continue selling tobacco-flavored products.

“This will absolutely put me out of business. There is no debating that,” said Todd Stiger, owner of E-Vapor-8 in Kalispell. “The vast majority of people want something that doesn’t remind them of cigarettes. Only 2% of my business comes from non-flavored or tobacco-flavored products.”

Deanna Sampson, owner of D’s Vapor Plus, and Ryan Bliss, owner of Vapor Depot, offered similar numbers for their Kalispell stores, estimating as much as 90% of their profits come from flavored products.

“I’m small and I have very little foot traffic as it is. We’ll go under if this rule goes into effect,” said Sampson. “I’m sitting on a few thousand dollars worth of products that I’ll have to what? Throw away if I all of a sudden can’t sell them?”

THE RULE mentions the department does not collect or have information “that would enable it to determine what percentage of e-cigarette sales consist of flavored products,” but also says officials estimate “the rules will significantly and directly impact small businesses who sell flavored e-cigarettes.”

All three local shop owners say Gov. Steve Bullock’s 120-day ban on flavored electronic smoking devices that took place earlier this year should have been a strong indicator that those in the smoking and vaping industry rely heavily on flavored products.

In October 2019, Bullock directed the Department of Public Health and Human Services to implement emergency administrative rules to temporarily prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. That rule was lifted in April and according to Bliss, some local shops didn’t survive the temporary ban.

“A handful of competitors shut down because they weren’t making any revenue,” said Bliss, whose shop Vapor Depot was the first vapor store to open in Montana back in 2011. “I’m still trying to rebuild from those four months, too.”

Bliss and others say other insights can be gleaned from the temporary ban.

For example, Bliss said he estimates less than 10% of his customers said they were willing to switch to tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes and those who wished to continue purchasing flavored products started ordering them online instead. At Stiger’s shop, he noted about one-third of his customers turned back to smoking regular cigarettes, which he said, in his personal experience, is a much harder smoking habit to break than an e-cigarette habit. He also said he imagines many of his younger customers would turn to smoking marijuana, which he said many have mentioned they gave up after they took up vaping.

“When you look at everything anyone could smoke or vape, e-cigarettes are healthier and they are easier to quit if you want to,” Stiger maintained. “This rule will make people turn back to cigarettes or drugs.”

When the temporary ban went into effect, Bullock said it was to allow enough time for officials to investigate the “possible causes of a national outbreak of e-cigarette-related injury and death.”

As of February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had received about 2,800 total reports of cases or deaths in the U.S. related to e-cigarettes or vaping, with nearly 70 of those being deaths. However, the CDC also said there has been a steady decline in those injuries and cases since September 2019. The organization also states cigarette smoking, not vaping, is responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.

Health statistics aside, Montana state currently taxes cigarettes and other tobacco products, but not e-cigarette and vape products. According to the Montana Department of Revenue, each tobacco cigarette sold in the state has an 8.5 cent tax included in the retail price. About 44% of those tax revenues go to a special revenue fund for the health and Medicaid initiatives account, about 6% is allotted to the state’s long-range building program account and more than 8%, or $2 million, goes to a special revenue fund for the state health department.

Bliss and others said they believe the state wants to bring in more profit from the tobacco taxes after “more people turn to smoking cigarettes.”

“We are getting sick of fighting this fight to be honest. E-cigarettes are a competitor to traditional tobacco companies and we think it’s obvious the state is trying to hand this entire industry back to big tobacco for tax purposes,” Bliss said. “This has been going on for a long time.”

The health department did not respond to questions in time for this article.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services is accepting public comment on the rule until July 24 and a public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for July 16; go to https://dphhs.mt.gov/administrativerules

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com