VAPOR LOCKED: Vape and cigarette dealers reeling from bans, warnings and age limits

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A wall of vape juice is prominently on display at eCig of Denver, in Aurora.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Some Aurora e-cigarette and vaporizer stores are feeling the burn as the U.S. continues to be rocked by an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, some deaths and a public health scare.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is still investigating a mysterious lung illness related to vaping marijuana-based products — and possibly nicotine vaporizers as well — leading to more than 25 deaths and about 1,300 illness nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The relatively young nicotine vaporizer industry is well-represented in Aurora, where 16 stores specialize in selling vapes, according to City of Aurora Tax and Licensing Manager Trevor Vaughn. He said city data could be imperfect, but reported the stores saw a 0.5 percent gross sales increase in July before an almost 5 percent tumble in August, with September data coming down the pike.

Marijuana dispensaries also sell marijuana vaporizers for recreational and medicinal use, although these vapes are used for different purposes and often look different. The CDC warns mostly of marijuana vaporizers that contain unregulated chemicals now in the sights of state marijuana rulemakers, but Aurora nicotine vape entrepreneurs say their businesses are suffering because of a general fear about vaporizing.

Americans have turned to nicotine vaping in recent years in part as an alternative to smoking. The vapes are usually used by pressing a button on a hand-held machine, which heats up and vaporizes a concoction of liquids, nicotine and flavoring to be inhaled.

Tucked into a strip mall near the intersection of East Iliff Avenue and South Havana Street, Chris Burgess owns and runs the nicotine vape store eCig of Denver. He said sales have halved since the first reports in August of vaping-related illnesses. Between his two other vape shops — in Lakewood and Federal Heights — he said he’s had to let 10 employees go, and he doesn’t know whether his Aurora location will survive for another month.

“It’s killed my business,” he said of the vaping scare. He sees his store as collateral damage in a health crisis related to marijuana vapes, but one in which nicotine vapes may also play a part.

At his three combined stores, Burgess said he currently holds about $75,000 products in inventory: the vaporizer machines themselves and a full shelf of vape “juices” in many flavors make up much of the small store on Havana Street. He doesn’t stock Juuls, the popular electronic cigarette brand criticized for marketing to underage users, and says he religiously IDs customers to avoid enabling kids to get hooked on the stuff. Colorado has the highest rates of teen vaping use in the country, according to the state health department.

That’s in part what motivated Denver to recently raise the buying age for nicotine products, including vapes, from 18 to 21. It’s unclear whether the new rule has sent more young vapers and smokers to Aurora and suburban vape shops.

Burgess said his business losses are probably due to media reports confusing the two vastly different kinds of vapes — nicotine and marijuana — in their coverage of the health scare. The CDC says most of the 1,300 patients afflicted with the lung illness exclusively used marijuana vaporizers, but say “the possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded.” The health agency is now recommending people abstain from both marijuana and nicotine vapes.

Burgess agrees. He said nicotine vapes should be a last resort for smokers who can’t quit.

That’s how Kegan Williams weaned himself off of smoking Marlboro cigarettes for a decade. Williams now manages RiNo Vapes, another nicotine vaporizer shop near South Peoria Street and East Iliff Avenue.

The shop sells about 200 flavors of vape juice, including his favorite flavor, French toast.

“Tastes just like it, the syrup and everything,” he said.

But Williams and Burgess both balked at the suggestion that vaping is healthy. Williams said it’s simply a tool for smokers to “increase their chances of survival” by inhaling something less dangerous than cigarettes.

But scientists note that nicotine vapes entered the market without long-term clinical trials or serious looks at their public health impacts. Some studies have found vapes generate cancer-causing byproducts, including formaldehyde. Another suggested it is unclear whether nicotine vapes are actually more healthy than cigarettes. Nicotine is also a highly-addictive chemical.

At RiNo Vapes, Williams said he did see a downturn during the public health scare, but that business has rebounded.

For Williams and Burgess, the actual boogeyman in the vaping health crisis is not nicotine, but likely harmful and yet-unregulated chemicals in marijuana vapes including vitamin E acetate, which is used to break down cannabis oils for vaporizing.

That compound and two others are likely to be banned in Colorado next month in response to the “national vaping epidemic,” said Shannon Gray, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Revenue. That department’s Marijuana Enforcement Division proposed banning the compounds from marijuana vapes Tuesday. The rules are awaiting approval from agency chiefs likely next month, Gray said.

Even with the policy changes, Williams and Burgess are not optimistic about their respective shops. The Trump administration proposed outright banning electronic cigarettes and related products last month, which could effectively outlaw products on their shelves.

Williams said the right regulation is much needed, but is worried that his business would be caught in the crossfire.