When Eastern Vapor opened its Brighton location three years ago, it was Boston’s first “vape” shop, dedicated to selling the flavored liquids, usually mixed with different levels of nicotine, and the devices by which they're vaporized, that have come to comprise the relatively new phenomenon of "vaping."
A few weeks ago, it became the first to close down in the face of new federal regulations that many say will decimate thousands of small businesses like Eastern Vapor around the country — and possibly end the vaping industry as it stands today.
And if it’s not surprising that the small business owners most affected by the new regulations are crying foul, they are joined in some cases by, perhaps, somewhat unlikely bed fellows: public health advocates, some who worry that the new regulations will push users away from products that may actually be helping tobacco smokers quit — or push the business into the hands of tobacco companies whose motives they do not trust.
The use of e-cigarettes, vaporizers and other “Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems,” as the government terms the various devices, has exploded in the past few years, becoming a multi-billion-dollar market.
A large part of that market is controlled by Big Tobacco — companies like Imperial Tobacco, Altria (formerly Phillip Morris), and R.J. Reynolds.
But a huge and growing portion of the market is comprised of homegrown businesses manufacturing and selling a dazzling array of liquids and devices, which are constantly tinkered with as the technology evolves.
The new rules require, among other things, any electronic nicotine products to undergo extensive testing before going to market, tests that the FDA itself estimates will cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars— not per company, but per product — in other words, for each and every e-liquid flavor, vaping device.
In an industry driven largely by small, homegrown manufacturers, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of those products out there now. And it’s unclear how many, if any of those companies will be able to afford to afford the new testing costs.
“A lot of these people that are in this industry whether the juice makers, or shop owners, they’re not someone who was rich before this,” said John Witten, who managed Eastern Vapor since it opened three years ago.
“A lot of them started from nothing. And now they’re basically tearing that down. What they’ve built.”
Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, says that the rules which took effect on August 8 will put thousands of small manufacturers and independent retailers like Eastern Vapor out of business.
“Literally every company in this industry, with the exception of the largest tobacco companies and perhaps one or two companies with wall street backed firms,” says Conley, “have no hope.
If the sky is, in fact, going to fall on the industry, it may take a while: The FDA’s regulations went into effect on August 8, but allow a two-year window for products to undergo testing or be taken off the market.
And other area vape shops have not thrown in the towel: Eastern Vapor maintains another store in East Boston; The Vape Shop, on the other side of Brighton, remains open; and business has gone on uninterrupted at Beyond Vape, a Davis Square shop that is part of a larger chain, as well.
But the fate of Eastern Vapor’s Brighton shop could be a harbinger of things to come: Faced with the prospect of signing a new two-year lease, its owner assessed where the business might be in two years given the new regulations, and decided against the bet.
E-cigarettes and vaping have drawn no shortage of criticism and condemnation, ranging from concerns over the health affects of the products themselves to the use of them by children and teenagers.
But a growing number of voices in the public health point to research by various reputable public health experts suggesting that vaping may be the most promising smoking reduction or smoking cessation technique to come along in decades.
A recent report by the British Royal College of Physicians, one of the first groups to alert the public to the dangers of smoking tobacco — surprised many observers in its strong language calling for vaping products and technologies to remain available to the public.
The report found that most users of e-nicotine products are smokers trying to reduce or quit smoking, often with success. And it warned explicitly against regulations that “significantly inhibit the development and use of harm-reduction products by smokers.”
The issue is a contentious one, with reputable members of the public health and medical communities sometimes hotly at odds with each other.
“Electronic cigarettes are sort of frustrating because they would appear to have great potential as a tool for people to reduce and particularly to quit smoking,” says Mark Gottlieb, who directs the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University’s school of law in Boston.
Gottlieb notes that the jury is still out on whether (or more likely to what extent) vaping and e-cigarettes may be themselves harmful — though he says he’s “quite confident” that any risks will pale in comparison to those of “combustable” tobacco products, a view widely held.
His group supported the FDA’s move to regulate the electronic smoking because it filled what Gottlieb calls the “enormous void of any regulation of a consumer product that people inhale into their lungs.”
But he’s also wary of regulations that could put the business into the hands of Big Tobacco. Those companies' motivations, Gottlieb speculates, “are perhaps more sinister.”