City vape shops wary of new federal regulations

City vape shops wary of new federal regulations

By James Cullum (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria’s retailers and manufacturers in the growing e-cigarette industry are concerned that recently approved federal regulations will have negative effects on their businesses.

“All manufacturers and vape shops are worried right now,” said Thayer Saleh, president and founder of Vape Village.

Saleh has eight locations in Northern Virginia and opened at 3230 Duke St. in 2014.

“We hope the new president of the United States is a businessman and understands ourneed for business better than anyone else,” he said. “We hope for the best.”

Alexandria is also home to Eco Vapez at 4105 Duke St., Cigar ‘n’ Vape Alexandria at 678 S. Pickett St. and Vape, Tobacco and Cigar at 1508 King St. in Old Town.

And last month, Avail, the largest manufacturer and retailer of e-cigarette products in the country, opened its doors at 2728 Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s the 100th store for the Chesterfield County-based company that was founded in 2013, and the 30th in Virginia.

Avail officials said they enjoyed 40 percent growth last year, but nothing compared to triple-digit growth the year before that. The company sells vaping devices, accessories and more than 70 flavored e-liquids, like the menthol “Arctic Blast” and blueberry lemonade-flavored “Blue Pucker.”

Avail opened 38 stores last year, but is slowing its growth to 10 stores per year in light of the new regulations.

“What we’re going to see is a reduction in the number of players in the industry and fewer products,” said James Xu, president and co-founder of Avail. “[The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is] asking for extremely expensive testing of all vaping products. The cost estimates range from $2 million to $10 million per product.”

Last year, the FDA reclassified e-cigarettes as “additional tobacco products,” requiring retailers and manufacturers to prohibit sales to people under the age of 18, no longer give out free samples and require nicotine warning statements on packaging and advertising.

Under the new regulations, the FDA must review and authorize all vaping products, and starting in 2018, product packages and advertisements of all newly regulated tobacco products must contain this statement: “Warning: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.”

The regulations also mean a reduction in the number of products available for sale online.

“Online stores have always been a pretty big competitor for us, but most people like to see what they’re going to buy,” said Cisco Gonzalez, general manager of Eco Vapez. “I think more vape shops in Alexandria is a good thing. Right now, the more the merrier.”

FDA officials say that vaping targets youth and is a gateway to smoking cigarettes. From 2011 through 2015, national e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to 16.0 percent among high school students and from 0.6 percent to 5.3 percent among middle school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For now, the FDA anticipates it will be three full years until all existing e-cigarette-related brands comply with the new regulations, as companies will spend two years preparing their product applications followed by a year of federal review.

Xu said that while he does not vape, he was turned onto the marketability of vaping when it helped his wife quit smoking. He said he can no longer legally claim that vaping has health benefits, but alluded to a 2015 British Health Department study that claims it is 95 percent safer than traditional smoking.

“We see this as an opportunity, though. We are better positioned than anyone else,” Xu said. “We saw this coming from day one, and that’s why we are already in compliance with much of the FDA’s regulations.”