Brianna Goff used to smoke about a pack of cigarettes a day until she discovered vaping, and then started a business when she discovered others with the same problem.
Goff, 38, owns B-Town Vapes inside the Doc and Eddy’s Plaza at 711 15th St. W. in Billings, and she’s worried that new federal regulations treating the growing electronic cigarette industry like traditional cigarettes could put her out of business.
“Vaping is being vilified, and it should be praised,” Goff said last week.
This month, the Food and Drug Administration released new regulations on the growing e-cigarette industry, winning praise from public-health advocates and angst from the vaping community.
While vape shop owners knew federal regulations were coming, they said the FDA’s proposals are too costly and could put them out of business by cutting their supply from manufacturers.
The biggest blow is to manufacturers of vaping juice, the liquid heated in a mod device and vaporized in a sweet-smelling cloud. They must now register every flavor (some make hundreds, with varying levels of nicotine), list ingredients and obtain authorization from the FDA.
Vaping advocates say these regulations could cost manufacturers millions, which they can’t afford.
“A lot of the companies will just quit… It’s going to be awful. You’re basically killing an entire industry that has grown so rapidly,” Goff said.
Billings has six vaping shops, and e-cigarettes are sold in convenience and groceries all over town. The boom came in 2014, when four shops, U-Blaze Vapor, the Vape Shop, Vapor Craziness and Juicity (then called Montana Vapor Outlet) opened within six month.
A second Heights shop opened last month, Old Skool Vape Society.
E-cigarettes have grown into a multi-billion business nationwide and started cutting into sales of tobacco. Vaping advocates note that large tobacco companies have pushed for increased U.S. regulation of e-cigarettes for years.
They also point to an April study by a British medical organization, the Royal College of Physicians, that concludes e-cigarettes provide more benefits to users than harm.
In the United States, however, public health advocates say consumers deserve to know more about what they’re putting in their bodies. They add that current regulations do little to protect children.
Donna Healey, a spokeswoman for RiverStone Health, noted that about 16 percent of high school students reported last year using electronic cigarettes, according to a Centers for Disease Control report.
“The FDA has taken a long-awaited step to protect the health of minors by regulating e-cigarettes. Right now, there’s no scientific consensus on the potential benefits or harms of vaping. While cigarette smoking has declined among youths in recent years, e-cigarette use has skyrocketed,” Healey said in a written statement.
Federal regulations prevent retailers and manufacturing from marketing e-cigarettes as a way to quit tobacco. However, shop owners in town say they’ve stopped their heavy smoking since they started puffing juice vapors.
Anecdotally, they add that customers have similar stories, and they’re afraid the regulations will have an unintended, ironic side effect: forcing people to go back to tobacco for their nicotine fix.
“A lot of people are worried that (vaping is) going to completely go away,” said Dan Michaelis, general manager of the Juicity store in Billings.
Juicity has five employees and manufactures and sells 100 to 200 bottles of juice daily, said Kellie Rogers, who owns the Billings and second location in Evanston, Wyo.
She said she supports limited regulation, and she thinks manufacturers should be treated the same as restaurants and food servers.
Submit the facilities for spot checks from local health departments, but don’t force them out of business, she said. Otherwise, vapers will go to the black market, ordering online from Chinese manufacturers or buying ingredients and making their own.
“There’s really no way to stop it, so they may as well regulate it on a reasonable level,” she said.
Rogers added that the industry is working through advocacy groups such as the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives to lessen the blow.
“It’s ridiculous, (but) I don’t think it will end us. I think we all will fight it and come out with some sort of agreement,” said Rogers, also a former smoker.
Goff said her shop strives to serve customers without glamorizing vaping, especially to children. B-Town Vapes is tucked inside a liquor store, which is already limited to sales to adults, and the juice bottles are displayed on black shelves with simple descriptions of the flavors.
It lacks flashy descriptions of names often cited by opponents as appealing to kids, and Goff said she instead focuses on a deep knowledge of the products by her staff.
“There has be to some regulations that are welcome. I get that. It’s a necessity… We’ve always been about educating customers on the safety,” she said.