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As the world slowly opens back up with the prospect of vaccines and better understanding of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the future seems tenuous so far. During the lockdowns of 2020, “non-essential” establishments were forced to close, including vape shops. That made online vape retailers more of a lifeline for vapers everywhere.
However, the industry has taken yet another hit with legislation for bans on online sales and postal distribution of vape products started to be enacted. Even if the pandemic finally subsides and the world returns to a semblance of normalcy, things may never be the same again for the vape industry with the possibility of an online vape retail ban.
Thousands of small businesses closed shop during the lockdown, vape shops included. It was a difficult time for brick-and-mortar stores as cities only allowed “essential” businesses to remain operational at a decreased capacity.
However, while it’s easy to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns may have caused sales to plummet, a survey of vape shops conducted by ECigIntelligence suggests another culprit.
According to a majority of vape businesses, decreased vape sales in 2020 is mostly due to the scandal resulting from reports of vape-related lung injuries due to use of illicit THC vape cartridges containing Vitamin E acetate.
While the cause had been pinpointed, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, continued to point the finger at e-cigarettes as the culprit for what they’ve dubbed EVALI—E-cigarette or Vaping product use Associated Lung Injury.
It was found by ECigIntelligence that the average vape store experienced an 18% decline in sales between 2019 and 2020, while 80% of surveyed stores reported a loss. EVALI topped the survey as the main cause of loss in sales, while the COVID-19 pandemic was cited as the second.
The main concern raised about online vape retailers by various state governments such as in Illinois and Washington is the sale of vape products to underaged consumers. Due to the difficulty of enforcing proper age screening on the Internet that can definitely prevent underaged customers from procuring vape products, a ban on online vape retailers is being pushed.
For instance, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit against Minnesota-based Vapes.com and its parent company Equte, LLC for “marketing and selling vaping products, including to underage Chicagoans.” The city had passed a flavor ban back in September.
Five vaping companies had to settle with the state of Washington and pay more than $130,000 to avoid being sued for selling vape products to minors online. This was after the sellers were caught in a sting by the Washington State Attorney General’s office, wherein they posed as minors to attempt purchasing vape products on their websites.
Meanwhile, New York City filed a federal lawsuit against 22 online vape retailers for luring in and selling to underaged buyers back in October 2019. A year later, in December 2020, the New York attorney general issued 47 cease and desist letters to vape retailers for selling banned flavors and ignoring tobacco age limits.
Back in 2019, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to establish 21 years as the minimum age to purchase nicotine-based products nationwide, including tobacco and vape products.
The Stopping Consumption of Tobacco by Teens Act, or the SCOTT Act, was named after former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib, the man who raised the alarm for underaged vaping during his tenure. The Aderholt Bill, also known as HR 2084, proved to be popular across both the Republican and Democrat parties.
Aside from banning sales of tobacco and vape products to customers under 21, the SCOTT Act also requires online vape retailers to verify buyer information through a third-party database, as well as requiring signature on delivery by an adult 21 years or over.
This creates more processes that may dissuade many vapers from purchasing vape products online. While the intent is to make sure that vape products were only used by adults, it may also encourage finding illicit sources for vape products.
Meanwhile, things are a bit different in the UK. The National Health Service, or NHS, has been known to have embraced vaping as a harm reduction strategy for tobacco mitigation. This is supported by a 2019 study that touts the key role of vape shops in helping smokers switch to a safer alternative.
Despite that, vape shops in the UK were declared “non-essential” and were forced to close during the lockdown. Independent vape businesses feared for their survival, while customers worried about being able to procure vape products during this time.
The UK Vaping Industry Association, or UKVIA, issued a press release to remind vape users in the UK that they could obtain vape products from online vape retailers and home delivery services. The same was done by the Independent British Vape Trade Association, or IBVTA.
Unlike in the US, the online sale of vape products was encouraged across the pond. Many vape businesses had to quickly restructure in order to adapt to the circumstances, but it was definitely a better alternative to facing bans and sanctions.
As things open back up, vape shops have to take extra measures to ensure customer safety. Finding new wholesale sources that are not beset by supply chain issues caused by the pandemic was certainly one of the first steps, especially since a lot of those products come from China. This is especially true for devices and accessories.
Despite the distribution of vaccines, there’s still a need for safety measures. As with all business establishments, sanitation and disinfecting of commonly touched items and surfaces should be encouraged. Even when the pandemic finally passes, it would be a good idea to maintain these protocols to promote a clean and disease-free environment.
Just about any vape business nowadays, being able to sell online is a good way to get sales. For most without the resources or facilities to deliver vape products, the next best thing is curbside pickup. A lot of vape businesses have taken to this method for selling vape products without customers being able to enter their stores.
In any case, having an online storefront, either on a website, online marketplace, or in social media for customers to make their orders is a smart move. Of course, with the concern regarding minors purchasing vape products and the possibility of bans, it’s best to have an airtight age verification process to prevent violating the law.
It has been mandated since September that all vape products being sold should have an associated premarket application on file with the FDA so they’ll be legal to sell. That also means that while vape business can continue to sell vape devices, accessories, and eliquids, there’s now a need to find new revenue channels.
That may include widening product selection and finding a way to sell other merchandise. For now, the vape industry is still getting by. But as more regulations are being put to work, it’s up to vape entrepreneurs to find new ways to stay in business.