I stopped into a few vape stores late Thursday and again Friday, after we heard about Connecticut’s first death from the controversial habit.
Some hadn’t yet heard about Gov. Ned Lamont’s plea on video and in writing along with news of the death: “I cannot stress enough that people should just avoid these products completely, and most especially avoid products that were purchased off the street or have been modified in any way.”
Lamont didn’t order a temporary ban on vaping outright, as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker did, or try to ban the sale of flavored vapes, as we saw last week from New York’s Andrew Cuomo. No, the Gov wants to weigh this issue carefully before jerking his knee.
By urging everyone to just say no, Lamont basically bought himself some time. To that end, on Friday he talked with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo as part of his outreach to neighboring state bosses.
Still, his comment rankled some of the folks who sell this stuff.
“It’s kind of misplaced,” said Nicole Araujo, district manager for the four franchised Artisan Vapor and CBD Co. stores in West Hartford, Newington, Cromwell and New Haven.
“I agree that you shouldn’t be getting stuff off the street, but as far as telling people that you shouldn’t vape and smoke cigarettes instead,” she added, “it’s ridiculous.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, returning to his attorney general-era glory as a protector of consumers, led 12 U.S. senators Friday — all Democrats — in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decrying the agency’s “lagging response” to the epidemic.
“We ask today that HHS advance policies to help prevent more adolescents from getting hooked on e-cigarettes,” Blumenthal’s group wrote. They included very detailed recommendations including expanded use of specific drugs.
Earlier Friday, Blumenthal heard students at A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford talking about the vaping fad. He suggested banning many vape ads, banning flavors and banning all vape sales except by prescription.
Whoa, came the cry from the four stores I visited: We’re not the problem. Go after the mysterious products coming in from China, they implored, and the stuff sold underground, often with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
None showed anger at Lamont and Blumenthal, but it’s clear they’re under siege.
Is it warranted? Should they be wiped off the map? I don’t know and no one else does. Certainly vaping helps some cigarette addicts kick the habit, and equally clearly, it’s a nicotine addiction in its own right and even the upscale varieties might harm human lungs.
But it’s worth listening to these legitimate sellers because there is no simple answer. Bans feed the black market.
Araujo’s idea: allow vape sales only in specialty vape retailers, like package stores, to do away with the cheap goods of questionable provenance. “I just think a gas station shouldn’t be in the industry,” she said.
She was sent to a hospital with asthma as a cigarette smoker until she switched to vaping, she told me. “Now it doesn’t even bother me.”
As she spoke, her colleague Cameron DeSena draws a puff in the deep, narrow West Hartford Center storefront. “I quit smoking four years ago and haven’t had a cigarette since,” said DeSena, whose CBD training certificates hang on the walls. They said business has been stable lately despite the warnings.
One store manager in New Haven, who agreed to identify himself only as DS, his initials, said the age limit has hurt his location, near Gateway Community College. “They’re going to kill the small businesses like us,” he said.
Glass marijuana pipes line one wall and vaping products crowd the other side of the store. DS pulled a long drag on a strawberry-milk flavored vape from an electronic module, the kind that raises a poof of smoke, or vapor, as the case may be.
He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it but together, we took note of the mind-numbing list of flavors and delivery systems behind the counter at the store he and his brother, the owner, opened nine months ago.
Killer Custard honeydew, Blue Dream, High Octane 47, Pineapple Express and countless melon and other fruit varieties. The tools include mods, pods, coils, pens, cartridges (known as carts), atomizers and more.
It appears that most of the 1,080 cases of people hospitalized with lung issues in recent weeks — that number is obsolete as I write it — are from illegally sold THC vape concoctions, many sold on the streets, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. We’ve seen reports that the deaths and illnesses may be linked to a vitamin E supplement in some of the vapes.
But CDC isn’t ruling out that vaping in and of itself may be dangerous. It’s early in this.
Raising the age for tobacco and vape products to 21, which started in Connecticut Tuesday, knocked out about 40 percent of the business for DS, whose store is on Chapel Street in the Ninth Square district, along with two others.
A few doors down, the owner of another vaping store, who also declined to give his name (see the pattern?) said he’s fine with the new age restriction. He’d like to see vaping allowed only in stores that are “age gated,” meaning no one under 21 can even enter.
That owner sells the Juul brand, which is highest in nicotine by far, but he’d like to see a ban on so-called closed systems such as Juul, which — safe or not — allow for furtive use in schools, for example, because they’re small and don’t create a telltale cloud.
And he’d like to see limits on nicotine. All of these store owners say they work with customers in trying to limit nicotine.
As for flavors, they say it’s young adults, not kids, who crave the fruity vape cornucopia. No sense in banning flavors, they say — though the popular wisdom about marketing argues for a flavor ban, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to enforce in New York amid court challenges, which he will appeal.
Lamont and Connecticut lawmakers, for their part, are looking at a lot of options, most likely not through executive orders, which are very limited under this state’s constitution. “This should be driven by the science, not based on anything other than that,” Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said.
Trouble is, the crisis is ahead of the science. Options are likely to include that ban on flavors, steeper penalties for underground sales and marketing limits in addition to the suggestions the store owners suggested.
Students at A.I. Prince told Blumenthal they’re feeling peer pressure to vape. He warned them they’re targets of fierce marketing. “I know the tendency of a lot of teenagers is to say ‘Oh well, that adult is exaggerating ... that parent is just not cool,’ ” he said.
Outright bans won’t work.
“Considering how incredibly popular so many of these products became, there is going to be an inherent difficulty in rolling this back because you have an established industry,” Lamont spokesman Max Reiss said Friday. “For those consumers who do choose to use these products, we’re going to the best we can to make sure that they are safe, and they are not in the hands of kids.”
The stores say they’re part of that effort.