Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The city wants to stop the rise of teen vaping by banning the sale of Juul and other e-cigarettes. It could also mean the end of a particular kind of store.
At first, Christopher Chin liked the name “Gone With The Smoke” because it wasn’t too on-the-nose. All the other vape shops were using some variation of “X, Y, Z Vapor”—Tasty Vapor, Happy Vapor, Alpha Vapor, the Vapor Cave. You wouldn’t forget a store that sells e-cigarettes with a name like Gone With The Smoke, Chin figured. And so far, customers haven’t. “It’s like Cheers,” Chin tells me: When regulars come in, he knows their smoking habits, marital status, and what’s up at work.
But almost six years later, the name has taken on new meaning, as Chin’s and other vape shops in San Francisco come to terms with an impending ban on the sale of e-cigarettes, proposed in an effort to curb the growing use of vaping pens by teenagers. The few remaining vape stores that specialize in e-cigarettes and sell no other tobacco products will be most immediately affected by the ruling, Chin says.
“We have no future,” he said. “We play by the rules, and they change the rules in the middle of the game.”
San Francisco’s vape moratorium is the first of its kind in the country. Mayor London Breed signed the bill into law last month, and sales will be prohibited starting in late January. The ban will remain in effect pending a Food and Drug Administration assessment of the health risks of e-cigarettes.
The law, which parents are praising for stanching an epidemic, could also be a fatal blow for e-cigarette sellers, who are working hard to reverse it. Juul Labs, the popular San Francisco-based e-cigarette company that accounts for nearly 80 percent of the national market, loaned $500,000 to the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, which is sponsoring a ballot measure to repeal the law. The coalition is advocating instead for stricter age verification before sales, limits on bulk orders, and regulations on advertising to minors. The group collected more than double the 9,500 petition signatures it needed to qualify the proposal for the November ballot.
About 800 stores sell e-cigarettes in San Francisco. According to interviews with local vape store owners, cross-referenced with Yelp results, there are just three stores remaining that sell only e-cigarette products: Gone With the Smoke, Vapory Shop, and Vapor Den. That’s down from five or six only a few years ago, Chin says. Compare that with New York City, where there are closer to 80 stores, says Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. The disparity exists partly because of differences in population and real estate, but also because of San Francisco’s strong tobacco regulations.
In 2014, the city capped the number of tobacco licenses it would issue in each district at 45. (Chin’s and some 200 other shops in downtown District 6 were grandfathered in.) That same year, San Francisco banned shops from selling e-cigarettes in places where cigarettes were already prohibited. And last year, more than 60 percent of city voters approved a ban on flavored tobacco products, which are popular offerings for vaping devices in particular.
From the perspective of vape store operators—who cater specifically to smokeless tobacco users—the city’s efforts pose an existential threat to places that knowledgeably offer alternatives to cigarettes and chewing tobacco. E-cigarette advocates say that’s where the unintended consequence arises: Shops that sell a more diverse array of tobacco products—including pipes and cigarettes in addition to vapes—will likely stay open after the ban and simply lean into combustible and chewable products.
“They can get by, most of them, selling the products that are actually killing people,” Conley said. “If they were able to survive the flavor ban, then banning tobacco Juuls is probably not going to be a death knell.”
Nate Albee, an organizer with the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, smoked tobacco for 15 years and used e-cigarettes to quit. He says the potential loss of a harm-reduction option is what worries him most.
“What’s so crazy for me … is what we’re really talking about is leaving cigarettes on the shelves, and removing the most effective tool to stop smoking in the history of tobacco,” he said.
Other e-cigarette sellers do expect to take a hit based on what happened after the 2018 flavor ban. In a press release from the Arab-American Grocers Association cited by Mission Local, one grocer said he started losing $1,500 per day after it took effect.
“Most customers have adapted so far, I would say, but I do run into customers coming from out of town … who pretty much walk away” when they see they can’t buy flavored products, said Jackie, an employee at Vapor Smoke Shop, a hybrid smoke-and-vape store just down the street from Gone With the Smoke. “We have lost sales due to that law.”
Saving the teens
The city’s stringent tobacco regulations aren’t designed to target mom-and-pop stores, the City Attorney’s office says. The stated goal is simple: To save the teens.
While rates of teen smoking have declined precipitously in recent decades, rates of teen vaping grew 78 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Juul, especially, has been criticized for appealing directly to young people with fruity flavors and an alluring social media presence. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, use of e-cigarettes among high school students is now higher than among adults.
“We’ve worked for decades to decrease tobacco usage and try to end nicotine addiction,” Shamann Walton, a San Francisco lawmaker who co-authored the ban, told the New York Times. “Now you have this device loaded with nicotine and chemicals that’s drawing people to addiction. We need to keep it out of the hands of young people.”
E-cigarettes are considered less harmful and carcinogenic than their combustible cousins because they’re not stuffed with tar and other toxins. Juul emphasized this in a statement, saying “adult smokers should have access to alternatives since cigarettes still kill 40,000 Californians every year.”
But vapes contain more nicotine in each refill pod—the equivalent of more than one pack of cigarettes. Habitual Juulers often go through a pod every two days or so; though of course others smoke more or less. So while advocates argue that e-cigarettes are ideal for former smokers trying to get a healthier fix without increasing their odds of getting lung cancer, health professionals fear that they’re also perfect for hooking teens early, and that vaping could serve as a gateway to other tobacco products.
Conley argues that most teens are not using vapes habitually, only “at a party on a Saturday.” A Surgeon General’s report of skyrocketing rates of youth vaping also found that most high school users smoke fewer than 10 days a month. Chin says his clients all range from 21—the legal smoking age in California as of 2016—to 70 years old.
An absent FDA
Health risk assessments of the product vary widely. The British government actually encourages the use of e-cigarettes, saying they’re 95 percent less dangerous than traditional cigarettes. Stanton Glantz, a professor of tobacco control at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times that they’re “likely around two-thirds as harmful as conventional ones.” In a recent interview with CNBC, Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns acknowledged the lingering uncertainty. “Frankly, we don’t know today,” he said in the segment. “We have not done the long-term, longitudinal, clinical testing that we need to do.”
To resolve these conflicting accounts, the City Attorney’s office is looking to the FDA to weigh in. “Under federal law, the Food and Drug Administration must review new tobacco products, like e-cigarettes, to ensure that they are safe for public health before they may be put on the market,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who co-sponsored the legislation, in a statement. “It’s no different from the FDA’s requirement to review new drugs before they’re available on the shelves at your neighborhood pharmacy.”
If Juul were to submit to FDA review today, Herrera says, the agency would have to issue a reply within 180 days—before the official ban strips e-cigarettes from vape stores’ shelves. “If and when the FDA determines that e-cigarettes are safe, they are welcome on our shelves,” he wrote.
The problem, he says, is that companies like Juul had already stocked the country’s shelves by the time the FDA was given the authority to assess the growing field of e-cigarette products in 2016. And though the FDA initially set the deadline for e-cigarette companies to send in their products for review at 2018, it’s now been pushed to 2022—5 years after Juul first hit the market in 2017. Instead, San Francisco wants the FDA to start that process immediately.
“We call on the FDA do its job, stop abdicating its statutory duty, and immediately conduct the review that by law was supposed to happen before these products went to market,” reads a letter to the FDA, co-signed by Herrera and officials in Chicago and New York. A spokesperson for Juul Labs said the company is “working on a comprehensive application to demonstrate the potential public health impact of Juul products,” but that the process has thus far proved expensive and slow.
Given the unmeasured risks, the City Attorney has little sympathy for the plight of vape stores. “They took a calculated business risk knowing that the products they were selling weren’t in compliance with the law,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office. “The health of our children is more important than someone’s bottom line.”
What prohibition can’t stop
Actually prying anyone’s hands off their Juul pens will ultimately prove harder than instituting a blanket ban. Manufacturers will be prohibited from mailing products to San Francisco addresses, but individual sellers might not comply, Conley says. On eBay, for example, the “E-Cig and Vape Accessories” category brought up more than 20,000 results.
Those who are more mobile could also take a 15-minute trip across the Bay to buy pods in Oakland or Berkeley, where e-cigarettes don’t face an imminent ban.
Oakland smoke shops have faced their own local restrictions, however, so they aren’t confident the San Francisco ruling will mean more business. “We don’t carry e-liquid here, even [without] the ban, because we’re not allowed to mix pipes with tobacco,” said Dona, an employee at The Twilight Zone, a smoke shop in Oakland (she declined to give her last name). In addition to limiting tobacco sellers’ ability to stock both juice and pipes, the city also banned the sales of flavored tobacco in most vape shops last year.
“This ban, it hurts,” said Abdo Hussein, who works at Gateway Smoke Shop in Oakland, and sympathizes with his San Francisco peers. “It’s a very bad idea for small businesses, and people are going to smoke anyway. They’re going to get it somewhere else.”
Chin says he’s already heard that long-time clients have gone south to Daly City for products they can’t find at Gone With The Smoke. “It hurts,” he echoed.
But crossing city lines is harder for teenagers than adults, says Cote. “This legislation makes it less likely that San Francisco youth will have ready access to e-cigarettes,” he said. “That’s the point.”
Where San Francisco leads, others follow
Critics note that the e-cigarette regulation runs counter to the city’s other, more permissive, policies: California legalized cannabis sales in 2018, and San Francisco supervisors have voted in favor of creating safe injection sites to cut down on fentanyl overdoses and needle litter.
But it also squares with the city’s growing desire to lead the country in progressive policy-making. “They want to be the most progressive city in the United States, and by wanting to have that moniker they’re doing everything they can to get themselves noticed,” Chin said.
The city does aim to use this legislation to send a signal to others, the City Attorney’s office says. Already, California cities like Richmond, Livermore, and Hayward are investigating bans of their own. “To the extent other cities want to follow San Francisco’s leadership on e-cigarettes, we welcome that,” said Cote.
Chin says he’ll spend the next few months leaning into CBD sales, and has stopped buying new e-cigarette supply entirely. The shelves behind him are getting bare; only a few flavors, like Frozen Hulk Tears and his most popular, Lychee Lauren, remain.
“Even though I can still sell up until the end of the year, I want to jump into [CBD] now, because I don’t want to wait,” he said. His lease runs until 2021, and he needs to stock something to keep the lights on. Though the city has said it will support retailers who are willing to pivot to “healthy alternatives,” Chin says he hasn’t been approached with an offer.
“If you want healthy stuff, open a salad shop,” he says. “I hate to say it, but [this is] a war on our freedoms as adults to do what we want.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Juul’s founding year.