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Villain Vape Lounge in Port Chester feels business dropping with recent bans from Albany
John Meore, jmeore@lohud.com

A growing opposition movement of vape shop owners, vaping industry groups and vapers is attacking New York’s emergency ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

Many of the vaping advocates suggest the ban could drive thousands of adults now using vape products back to smoking cigarettes and fuel demand for dangerous black-market vaping wares.

Some warn New York’s push to ban e-cig flavors detracts from efforts to keep nicotine away from kids and crack down on illicit marijuana vape products connected to hundreds of severe lung injuries across the country.

“The problem is not with the flavors; the problem is the access the kids have to these products and the lack of enforcement, and frankly the lack of common-sense regulations,” said Cheryl Richter, an advocate and co-owner of Cherry Vape in New Rochelle.

The vaping supporters received a boost last week when an appeals court delayed enforcement of the ban as part of a high-profile lawsuit.

The case seeks to overturn Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s action directing health officials to prohibit flavored e-cigarettes due to rising use among young people.

About one in four high school students in New York are now vaping and their use is largely driven by flavored e-cigarettes, state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Sept. 17, addressing the reason for New York’s emergency ban that lasts 90 days. A judge is expected to hear arguments in the lawsuit on Oct. 18.

Meanwhile, a new poll from Siena College found the majority of New Yorkers, 61%, support the emergency ban, and 78% of them view vaping as a serious health threat.

Poll details:Here’s how New Yorkers feel about the e-cigarette flavor ban

New York’s first vaping death

Amid the ban fight, New York this week reported its first vaping-related death, a 17-year-old male in the Bronx. State Health Department officials are investigating the case and it’s unclear if he was vaping nicotine, marijuana, or both.

The Bronx case is one of 110 lung injuries linked to vaping statewide and more than 1,000 nationally. The outbreak of severe pulmonary illnesses, which typically begin with pneumonia-like symptoms, has rapidly grown from a handful of cases this summer.

Vape death: More details about NY teen’s vaping-related death, possibly youngest case in U.S. 

State and federal health officials have warned people against vaping nicotine and marijuana until a cause of the outbreak is determined, despite early evidence pointing to black-market marijuana vapes as the leading suspect.

On Tuesday, Cuomo attacked the vaping industry, in general, accusing it of illegally selling and marketing e-cigarettes flavored like candy to kids.

“When you are selling bubble gum and Scooby Doo flavor, you know exactly what you’re doing,” he said, adding some of vaping companies have financial ties to tobacco companies.

“We went all through that with cigarettes. All those people had to die before we found the truth,” Cuomo said.

“And now the tobacco company goes into the vaping business and targets young people and markets to young people with a product that might actually be more dangerous than a cigarette,” he added.

What vape shop owners say

Some vape shop owners disputed they’ve contributed to rising youth vaping. Instead, they argued their goal is to get people to stop using nicotine altogether.

One is Victor Canastraro, who owns Perfection Vapes near Buffalo and is part of the lawsuit against New York.

Canastraro’s tale started with him smoking cigarettes at 9 years old and huffing down a pack a day by age 12.

“Like so many smokers, I was hooked on cigarettes and unable to kick the habit no matter how hard I tried,” he said in an affidavit.

Over the years, Canastraro said he eventually used e-cigs to quit smoking but lost his father and four siblings to cigarette-related cancers.

“Because of all the pain that I have witnessed cigarettes cause my family and me, I became highly motivated to want to help people transition to vapor products as less harmful alternatives to cigarettes,” he said.

Yet Canastraro added his vaping operation, which includes e-liquid manufacturing, is the rare business that wants to eventually put itself out of business by selling nicotine step-down options, which try to wean people off the highly addictive ingredient.

Enforcement of the flavor ban, however, would apparently speed up Canastraro’s timetable because about 90% of his sales involve non-tobacco flavors.

“I will be forced to immediately close both of my businesses and I will have to lay off my five employees,” he said.

Despite the fact they could still sell tobacco-flavored e-cigs if the ban is approved, many vape shop owners say former smokers need other flavors to prevent relapses due to their addictions to tastes and aromas of cigarettes.

Similarly, the owners of Villain Vape Lounge in Port Chester, Bobby Williams and Jeffrey Dinucci, described the ban as misguided government overreach that threatens their attempts to get adults off cigarettes.

They also accused politicians and media outlets of disingenuously blaming cannabis-related vaping illnesses on legal e-cigarettes.

“From a business standpoint, it hurt us with them saying this made people sick or this is causing people to die,” Dinucci said, motioning to a wall of e-cigarettes.

“This never hurt anyone, counterfeit THC, vitamin E acetate, that’s what did it,” he added, referring to a black-market marijuana vape additive involved in New York’s probe of vaping illnesses.

Like many other vape shop owners with personal stories of quitting cigarettes, Williams smoked two packs of cigarettes a day but switched to e-cigs. The 40-year-old father said it had life-changing health benefits.

“Walking up a regular flight of stairs I was winded, and legit one month after starting vaping, all that went away,” he said.

“No one’s ever going to tell me that this is bad,” Williams added, referring to the chocolate moon pie flavored e-cigarette he was vaping on Tuesday afternoon.

Vape shops vs. Juul Labs

Though protective of vaping rights, some New York vape business owners seemed to criticize one of the industry leaders, Juul Labs, for selling a higher nicotine product at the center of federal investigations into spikes in youth vaping.

The comments focused on Juul’s business tactics, such as selling its products at gas stations and convenience stores with poorer oversight of underage sales than vape shops. Some alluded to Juul’s financial ties to Altria Group, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.

“Juul distributes very similarly to the tobacco industry,” said Richter, who is also executive director of New York State Vapor Association’s Lower Hudson Valley region.

Richter noted Juul also doesn’t offer the nicotine step-down, or cessation, options available at many vape shops.

More details: Juul CEO resigns, vaping company suspends advertising as crisis continues

Juul has disputed claims that it contributed to the rise in youth vaping, arguing it marketed and sold products intended to help adults switch off combustible cigarettes onto another nicotine delivery device.

“Juul Labs exists to help adult smokers switch off combustible cigarettes, which are the leading cause of preventable death and contribute to over 28,000 deaths per year in New York,” company spokesman Austin Finan wrote in an email.

To address questions about Juul’s approach to nicotine, Finan noted the company selected 5% nicotine concentration “to provide adult smokers with a viable, satisfying alternative to combustible cigarettes.”

There is also a 3% Juul product that helps smokers “customize their switching journey,” he added, emphasizing that the company never promised to get people off nicotine altogether.

In contrast, some vape shops focus on selling e-cigarettes with less than half the nicotine concentrations offered by Juul, and slowly reduce the amounts, Richter said.

She asserted the flavor bans are missing the true threats linked to high-nicotine products, underage sales and combustible cigarettes.

The vape shop advocacy group in New York, however, has promoted a range of regulations seeking to limit improper marketing and sales to children, such as improved age-verification technology requirements and stricter advertising restrictions, Richter said.

“Our group focuses on the efforts of harm reduction,” she said. “Let’s not forget that 1,300 people die prematurely every day of smoking-related illness (in the U.S.)”

Vaping economic impact

Much of the opposition push suggests the vaping industry would all but collapse if it’s forced to only sell tobacco-flavored products.

“We’re sweating this out, we’re trying to be positive and we’re trying to fight the fight along with all these other organizations,” said Dinucci, who’s starting to have second thoughts about opening a vape shop due to the mounting restrictions.

To understand the scope of the movement, consider the vaping industry employs about 166,000 Americans who earn wages and benefits totaling nearly $8 billion, according to an economist hired by the Vapor Technology Association, a national trade group, as part of its lawsuit against New York’s flavor ban.

That means vaping is slightly larger than the national steel and forging industry and has almost as many workers as the commercial fishing industry, the economist, John Dunham, stated in an affidavit.

In New York, vaping directly employs 3,288 people at about 700 vape shops and e-liquid manufacturing sites who earn about $165 million in wages and benefits per year, he said.

Vaping products also generate nearly $31 million in sales taxes in New York, a figure that stands to increase once a new 20% state excise tax on the products goes into effect Dec. 1, Dunham added.

Vaping entrepreneur Jonathan Glauser, co-owner of Magellan Technology, a distributor and wholesaler doing business as Demand Vape in Buffalo, expanded on the ban’s potential repercussions as part of the lawsuit.

“I expect that, if not immediately enjoined, the flavor ban will lead to a wave of personal bankruptcy filings by many vape shop owners throughout the state of New York,” Glauser said in an affidavit.

Yet despite the looming ban threat, 38-year-old vaper Keith Bisignano isn’t worried about losing access to the flavored e-cigarettes that he used to quit smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

“I’m prepared,” he said during a visit to Villain Vape Lounge. “I will go full-blown black market.”

David Propper, The Journal News/lohud staff writer, contributed to this report.

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