Today marks one month since Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Department of Health banned the sale of flavored vaping products in the state in an effort to address growing public health concerns around vaping, particularly among youth.
The ban has received mixed reviews and also sparked a lawsuit: The Vapor Technology Association and the owner of RI e-Cig & Vapes have challenged the ban in court, claiming it will destroy the Rhode Island vaping industry and affect hundreds of small business owners. They are asking a Superior Court judge to grant a temporary restraining order on RIDOH’s emergency health regulations that currently enforce the ban, a tactic used to challenge similar bans in other states, said Donna Dionne, owner of RI e-Cig & Vapes. The Vapor Technology Association could not provide a comment by press time.
The ban is a response to what RIDOH Public Information Officer Joseph Wendelken calls a “public health epidemic of e-cigarette use among young people in Rhode Island.” The ban aims to decrease electronic cigarette use particularly among youth, who are often drawn to vaping for its novel flavors, Wendelken said. According to Wendelken, 20 percent of Rhode Island high school students report regular e-cigarette use and 15 percent of Rhode Island middle school students report experimenting with e-cigarettes at some point.
At the University, approximately 18 percent of undergraduate students reported using e-cigarettes, with just over 4 percent reporting daily use, according to The Herald’s Fall 2019 poll.
In comparison, youth smoking rates in Rhode Island for traditional cigarettes are around 5 percent. This gap is widening, with rates of e-cigarette use among youth steadily climbing while use of traditional cigarettes among youth continues to drop, Wendelken added.
The decline in traditional cigarette use among youth comes after decades of state efforts to educate people about the dangers of smoking and provide resources to help them quit, Wendelken said. But similar efforts to reduce youth e-cigarette use have been ineffective, he added, describing the youth vaping rates in Rhode Island as “enormously high” and “very unsettling.”
Dionne has concerns about the ban’s impact not only on businesses but also on those who rely on flavored vaping products to avoid traditional cigarettes. “We’re here to try to help people quit smoking and save lives,” she said. “I have my customers who have been around for years saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ They’re in tears or they’re very upset and angry, and they say they’re going to go back to cigarettes, that they don’t have any other choices.”
After 15 years of smoking and several attempts to quit through traditional nicotine replacement options, Dionne received a vape as a gift and quit smoking traditional cigarettes within days. Her husband, who she described as “a two-pack-a-day guy,” then tried vaping and dropped his cigarette habit within a week.
“I was seeing that all these people were quitting with these devices, and I needed to do something,” Dionne said. So she resigned from her position as a state social worker and opened RI e-Cig & Vapes in 2014. “I’ve had people come in who smoked for 50 years and who quit using a vape with the flavored e-liquid,” she said, adding that this transition likely would not have been possible without flavored vaping products.
Flavored vaping products comprise 80 percent of Dionne’s sales, and since taking these products off the shelves, she has had very little business. Dionne had to close her store in Coventry, one of two locations, and lay off seven of her 10 employees. She worries about the ban’s effect on the employees of vaping businesses in Rhode Island.
Dionne said she has not seen customers turn to unflavored vaping products to replace the flavored products. Instead, customers have told her they are going back to smoking traditional cigarettes, or traveling to other states to purchase flavored vaping products.
Gary Zhou ’20 has bought flavored vaping products for his friends in places where they are legal, like New York. Although he noted that the ban makes it much more inconvenient for people to continue their vaping habits, Zhou does not oppose the ban. In fact, he credits it with helping several of his friends quit vaping.
Many of Zhou’s friends were previously “on the cusp” of quitting vaping, he said, but Rhode Island’s recent ban has pushed them “over the edge.” Although some of his friends continue to rely on others who buy flavored vaping products in bulk when traveling to other states, several are planning to stop vaping once they run out of their current supply. He doesn’t know anyone who is planning to turn to traditional cigarettes instead.
Josh Marinelli ’20, a daily user, began vaping two years ago when he was 19, but plans to quit because of the ban.
Marinelli never smoked cigarettes before he began vaping and does not plan to begin after he quits. Like many others, he was drawn to e-cigarettes because of their enticing flavors. Although Marinelli had previously considered quitting vaping due to both its financial and health costs, he said his current plan to quit is “a direct result” of the ban. “Now it’s like what choice do you have but to (quit), unless you like tobacco flavored, which I don’t,” he said.
Like Zhou, Marinelli sees the benefits to banning flavored vaping products, noting the prevalence of underage vaping. But he added that the ban unduly limits adult vaping users, who he thinks should be able to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.