DECATUR — Vape shop owners say a measure announced Wednesday by President Donald Trump to ban flavored e-cigarettes does not address the growing nationwide health concerns for youth who use the products. They say the move could hurt or even force the closure of their businesses.
"The flavors are not the issue, it is the products sold on the side that are illegal and contain harmful products," said Travis Edwards, owner of Spacin' Vapors in Decatur. "Banning flavors will kill us. This could put us out of business."
Trump announced that his administration will propose banning thousands of flavors used in e-cigarettes to combat a recent surge in underage vaping. It will take several weeks for the Food and Drug Administration to develop new guidelines that will remove all e-cigarette flavors except tobacco, Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar told reporters during an Oval Office appearance with the president, first lady Melania Trump and the acting FDA commissioner Ned Sharpless. The measure will be subject to public input before taking effect.
Trump's first public comments on vaping come as health authorities investigate hundreds of breathing illnesses reported in people who have used e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. The announcement comes on the heels of a third death this year believed to have been caused by vaping.
Edwards said the majority of his business at 2802 N. Main St. comes from the sale of flavors, their most popular being a strawberry, blueberry and raspberry blend.
"We sell very few devices," Edwards said. "Adults come in all the time for flavors, not youth. We do not sell to minors."
Trump's proposal would only apply to nicotine vaping products, which are regulated by the FDA. Congress granted the the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products 10 years ago and in 2016, e-cigarettes were included in that category. At that point, agency officials resisted calls to ban vaping flavors and said they were studying whether flavors could help smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
Sen. Dick Durbin earlier this month called on the administration to swiftly and strictly regulate the vaping industry, comparing it to Big Tobacco preying on youth. Durbin called for Sharpless to enforce regulations on the industry in the next several days, or resign.
A ban on flavors would represent a huge blow to the vaping industry, including companies such as Juul, which has grown into a multibillion dollar business by selling mint, fruit and dessert flavored-nicotine products.
Ron Pease is the chief executive officer of Mister-E-Liquid, a corporation that first began in 2010 as an online retailer for vape liquids and has since opened brick-and-mortar stores in Michigan and Illinois, including two BloNoSmoke stores in Lincoln and Decatur, 2891 N. Water St.
Pease cited a study by the Vapor Technology Association that summarizes recent vaping-related concerns, including those about flavors. He said the true problem lies not in the flavors, but in illegal cartridges containing THC, a compound in marijuana.
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"You are not going to find THC carts in family-owned or corporate-owned businesses," Pease said. "This will devastate the industry. Family-owned businesses will suffer and will likely be forced out of business."
Some local owners said they weren't sure what this would mean for the future of their business. Jeremy Tolladay, co-owner of Soy City Vape Co., said he did not want to comment on the matter because he is not sure how this will affect business. A representative from Steam Engine Vape was not immediately available for comment.
Zoethel Ignozzi, an employee of the local shop JB Hawks Discount Tobacco & Vape, said she thinks government officials need to take a closer look at what the real concerns are before making decisions that could hurt businesses nationwide.
"They need to reconsider what they are doing," Ignozzi said. "They should have done this four years ago when vaping became popular."
"We simply have to remove these attractive flavored products from the marketplace until they can secure FDA approval, if they can," Azar said.
Azar said flavored products could apply for FDA permission to reenter the market. But under agency standards, only products that represent a net benefit to the nation's public health can win FDA clearance.
Azar said the administration would allow tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes to remain available as an option for adult smokers. But he said that if children begin using those products, "we will take enforcement action there also."
A 2009 law banned all flavors from traditional cigarettes except menthol. But that law did not apply to e-cigarettes, which were then a tiny segment of the tobacco market.
Juul and other vaping companies argue that their products are intended to help adult smokers wean themselves off traditional paper-and-tobacco cigarettes. But there is little evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for helping smokers quit.
Federal law prohibits e-cigarette and all other tobacco sales to those under 18. But last year, 1 in 5 high school students reported vaping in the past month, according to government survey figures. Government health officials have called the trend an "epidemic," and new statistics due out this fall are expected to show the problem worsening.
More than 80 percent of underage teens who use e-cigarettes say they picked the product because it "comes in flavors that I like," according to government surveys.
A few local governments, including San Francisco, have passed bans on flavored tobacco. And this month Michigan moved to become the first state to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. But other proposed flavor bans have stalled in state legislatures this year, often facing opposition from vaping lobbyists.
E-cigarettes have been on the U.S. market for more than a decade. FDA officials have repeatedly delayed enforcing regulations on them, responding to industry complaints that it would wipe out thousands of small vaping companies.
Most experts agree the aerosol from e-cigarettes is less harmful than cigarette smoke since it doesn't contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco. E-cigarettes generally heat liquid containing nicotine. But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of vaping.
The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.