Omar Fdawi’s decision to enter the vape business went beyond profit.
After losing two of his uncles, both longtime tobacco users, to cancer, Fdawi saw the emergence of e-cigarettes, or “vape” products, as an opportunity to encourage people to quit tobacco.
But Fdawi and other Chandler vape retailers now feel their future livelihood is threatened by emerging bans spurred by reports of a mysterious lung ailment that has claimed dozens of lives across the country.
Part of the problem, public health officials say, is the increase of counterfeit vaping products whose ingredients may be harmful.
“As retailers, we know where our products are being sourced from, we choose to carry brands that are established and can be trusted. People are getting sick because they’re using counterfeit and unsafe products. The ban will only make the problem worse” said Fdwai.
After opening his first store in Phoenix nearly five years ago, Fdawi expanded his store, Smoking Vapor, to three other cities – including a Chandler location near Rural Road & Chandler Boulevard.
Ever since his first opening, Fdawi said he was encouraged by stories that he heard from his customers, most of whom were former tobacco users.
“Our regular customers would come in and talk about how vaping changed their lives and improved their health. They were excited to tell me about how quitting cigarettes helped their breathing. They’re seeing improvements in their sleep and they feel encouraged to exercise again.”
Edward Townes, who owns a Chandler vape outlet called Cloud Slingers, said vaping enabled him to quit smoking cigarettes.
The success of his own experience encouraged him to open Cloud Slingers, located near Arizona Avenue and Pecos Road, last May. The overwhelming majority of his customers are also former smokers.
“Gums and patches never worked for me,” Townes said. “Vaping is perhaps the best opportunity of the century to tackle the public health crisis of tobacco.”
Fdawi said most of his customers are between 30- and- 50-years-old.
Most are curious cigarette or cigar smokers, looking to make the first step toward quitting and see e-cigarettes as a simpler transition, he said.
With a vast inventory of “smokeless” e-cigarette products, retailers like Fdwai’s Smoking Vapor feature flavors like “Naked Brainfreeze” and “Lemon Twist” – which Fdawi calls some of his best-selling products.
Yet, in spite of their popularity, such flavors may not sit on the shelves of Cloud Slingers, Smoking Vapor or any retailer, for much longer.
In response to growing concerns over vaping’s appeal to underage users, the Trump Administration announced a plan to ban all vape flavors beyond tobacco and menthol, as a means to wean underage users from using e-cigarettes.
Valued at nearly a $20 billion industry, the global e-cigarette market quickly attracted the attention of tobacco giants like Altria, the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes.
Last year, Altria invested nearly $13 billion in Juul Labs, a leading vape manufacturer popularizing flavors like mint, mango, and cucumber, which regulators say encouraged teens to try the product.
In response to the ban, the vaping industry argued its products benefit public health by providing tobacco users with an alternative.
Touting the product as cleaner and safer than cigarettes, the industry argues the ban will only compel adult users to return to tobacco.
“Flavors that try to mimic tobacco don’t taste good through the vape,” he said. “People would much rather return to smoking cigarettes than try to get a low-quality experience through the vape.”
Both Fdwai and Townes say their customers tend to opt for fruity flavors like “Cotton Candy” and “Blue Raspberry.”
Both argue the flavor ban is more likely to harm public health by pushing users to the black market, where products are less likely to be properly vetted and pose considerable risks.
ASU Professor Scott Lieschow, director of clinical and translational science at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, noted the recent national outbreak of vaping-related illnesses pressured federal regulators to act quickly.
“The Food and Drug Administration is obligated to weigh the public health benefits and risks of all tobacco products on the market, and those intended for the market, and when there are data pointing to great risk they must act,” Lieschow said.
Although vape manufacturers will be able to appeal the flavor ban, they’ll have to convince regulators their products benefit public health – a process Lieschow said will involve “thousands of pages, including extensive data from many studies.”
Although an exact cause of the lung injury outbreak has yet to be determined by the FDA or the Centers for Disease Control, early findings identified traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis.
In addition, the CDC notes several patients report having obtained the products from informal sources and street dealers.
For now, the vape industry’s survival appears to be dependent upon the work of researchers.
In assessing current data, Lieschow notes while some studies show e-cigarettes can help adult smokers move away from tobacco, other studies point out certain flavors risk attracting teenagers.
For more conclusive evidence, Lieschow believes regulators will need to loosen some of the more stringent rules barring scientists from studying the impact of vaping.
“Regulatory rules have made it very difficult for academic scientists to conduct the studies needed that would show definitively whether e-cigarettes are as effective as existing FDA-approved medications for smoking cessation,” he said.
Although the ban has yet to take effect, both Fdwai and Townes believe their stores are already beginning to see a significant decline in sales and store traffic.
Townes cites Cloud Slingers’ nearly 25 percent drop in sales across all of its Arizona stores – a decline he called “lethal” to the viability of the business.
To keep his five Arizona-based stores afloat, Fdwai has begun paying out of his pocket to ensure his staff, most of whom have been with Smoking Vapor for years, stay on.
With the fate of the vape business dependent on regulators, however, he worries.
“I’ll be honest, if the ban isn’t resolved, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep the business going.”