Dozens of vape shops across Long Island would close, putting hundreds out of work, if the state moves forward with a plan making it the first in the nation to ban all flavored e-cigarettes, industry officials said Friday.
The state Health Department outlined the proposal this week, just days before the federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue its own regulatory change putting strict limits on the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes.
Proponents of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan, which would make it illegal to possess, distribute or sell flavored e-cigarettes, contend the move is necessary to address the rising use of flavored tobacco-style products among minors. Shops could continue to sell tobacco and unflavored menthol electronic cigarettes.
But Michael Frennier, president of the New York State Vapor Association, said the measure would "shut the industry down," forcing the closure of more than 700 stores statewide and eliminating more than 2,500 jobs. Nearly all of the e-liquid sold in vape shops across the state, he said, is flavored.
"The amount of bankruptcies and foreclosures from vape shops closing down would be astronomical," Frennier said.
There are at least 70 vape shops on Long Island, employing three to four workers at each location, according to the association.
E-cigarettes and e-liquids allow inhalation of an aerosol that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. More than 15,000 flavors of e-cigarettes are available, including chocolate, cotton candy and peanut butter cup. Critics say the flavors, packaging and marketing are meant to entice young people.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the governor is "very concerned about the rise in youth e-cigarette use and this administration is looking to do everything it can to curb this emerging public health issue."
The administration published its proposed regulations on Wednesday but rescinded them the following day to allow for additional legal review, officials said. The regulations are expected to be republished soon and could be adopted after a 60-day public-comment period.
State regulations already prohibit the sale of liquid nicotine products to anyone under the age of 18, but Long Island municipalities have tightened their restrictions and oversight of e-cigarettes in recent years.
In 2015, Suffolk County raised to 21 the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and Nassau followed suit earlier this year. The counties also require retailers to keep e-cigarettes and other vaping products behind the counter.
Suffolk police said they've made 35 arrests thus far in 2018 for the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Nassau police have issued three summonses for the sale of age-restricted products to minors but were unable to provide data on e-liquid violations, officials said.
Locally, the Town of Babylon has passed legislation banning vape shops from opening in business and commercial areas and prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes in public parks.
Despite the restrictions,state Health Department data show e-cigarette use by high-school-aged youth has grown from 10.5 percent in 2014 to 27.4 percent in 2018.
“They’re marketing this to kids,” said Randy Rusielewicz, principal at Patchogue-Medford High School. “There are flavors like bubble gum, candy, chocolate cake. Where’s the biggest problem? It’s not with the adults. It’s with the kids."
The FDA is expected to announce plans next week that would put tight restrictions on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, although agency officials declined to discuss the specifics of their proposal.
Last month, the FDA announced it was increasing its enforcement efforts, conducting a nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors at brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. The FDA also gave the five largest e-cigarette companies, which control 97 percent of the marketplace, 60 days to devise plans to keep their products out of the hands of children.
“E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous — and dangerous — trend among teens,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last month.
Jeffrey Drope, scientific vice president of economic and health policy research for the American Cancer Society, said e-cigarettes harm adolescent brain development. "It’s addicting a new generation of young people to nicotine," Drope said.
But Long Island vape shop owners argue the state's proposal goes too far and would put limits on adults who used the flavored products to wean themselves from traditional cigarettes.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, because we have a lot of adult smokers who use flavored e-juices,” said Aman Singh, owner of L.I. Vape in Huntington Station. “Liquor is flavored too and that’s catered to adults. Why wouldn’t they ban flavored liquor?”
While e-cigarettes are sold in a host of retail outlets, from Walmarts to 7-Elevens, gas stations and drugstores, industry officials said the state's proposal would have minimal effect on sales. "E-cigarette sales are de minimis on our balance sheet at the moment,” said Lyle Beckwith, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 150,000 shops nationwide.
James Rogers, a senior at Smithtown High School West, said e-cigarettes are cheap and easily accessible at his school.
“I think it should be limited," said Rogers, who runs a student-led anti-vaping campaign. "They should get rid of flavors that attract children.”