Ann Arbor businesses prepare for flavored e-cigarette ban

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 8:11pm

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Design by Alec Cohen

In an effort to combat the formally-recognized public health emergency of youth vaping, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarette juice on Wednesday. With just over three weeks before the ban goes into place, many local Ann Arbor businesses and University of Michigan students have been left to consider the next steps in response to the state-wide ban.

This announcement follows a spike in high school students’ e-cigarette use between 2017 and 2018, as well as a surge in national attention paid to vaping-related illnesses becoming more common across the country. The announcement also follows e-cigarette brand Juul’s decision last November to stop selling fruity flavors in gas stations, allowing them only in designated smoke shops.

According to LSA junior Zac Kolbusz, the University has a pervasive “nicotine culture” which will be heavily affected by the ban.

“I feel like a lot of people get here for the first time, try it at a party or something, and from that point on, there is the big risk of addiction,” Kolbusz said.

Though Kolbusz uses a Juul himself, he says he supports the ban and believes Whitmer “did the right thing.” As a result of the ban, Kolbusz said he and many of his friends will try to quit using nicotine. However, Kolbusz is fearful the ban may turn many previous e-cigarette users onto cigarettes instead.

“Anytime you have someone that’s addicted to a substance and pull the rug out, there’s going to be little issues in the day-to-day life,” Kolbusz said. “I’m hoping that people actually try and quit. I know that’s what I’m trying to do, but expectations aren’t always results. With any drug, with any kind of substance, there’s certain things going on that make it hard to quit.”

Kolbusz believes students will find creative ways to get Juul pods on campus and could turn to cigarettes if all else fails.

According to local smoke shops, the ban’s announcement has not yet slowed e-cigarette sales. Clifton Whinery, an employee at Ann Arbor’s Bongz and Thongz, said the upcoming ban has actually done the opposite. Whinery said he saw more people coming in and buying bulk over the weekend than he has in the past.

“I believe, if anything, it’s been easier to sell the things because everybody’s in hiatus (from not smoking) you know, ‘Oh my goodness. They’re taking our vape away,’” Whinery said.

Patricia King, owner of 42 Degrees art gallery and glass shop, refuses to sell tobacco products in her store given the effect it has been proven to have on users’ health. However, King said she has seen many people over the past few days coming into her shop and requesting e-cigarette pods.

“We actually, at some point, looked into (selling e-cigarette juice), because it would be of huge financial benefit to us, but I just can’t do it,” King said.

King voiced support for the ban, though she said she does not believe it will work in the way Whitmer intends.

“I don’t necessarily think that the flavoring part of it is necessarily something geared toward children or teenagers,” King said. “I think that it’s ‘a cool thing to do,’ and that’s why they’re doing it, but I don’t think the flavor thing is really the answer. I support people not smoking or vaping any type of tobacco, so if that’s going to keep people from using this, then yes, I support it.”

Whinery doesn’t believe the ban will work as intended either, because he doesn’t blame e-cigarette juice for the recent outbreak in vaping-related illnesses. He points to black market THC pods as an alternate cause.

Because of Ann Arbor’s ordinance preventing the sale of nicotine to those under 21, Whinery also said the flavored juice ban targets a type of consumer already prohibited from e-cigarette use in this part of the state. Whinery said he thinks removing flavored options merely inconveniences the adults looking for a cigarette alternative.

“There’s just a few years between 18 and 21, but mentally there’s a big difference, and I think the 18-year-old kids probably do think more along the lines of flavors and ‘yummy, this tastes good’ than maybe a 21-year-old, 22-year-old who maybe smoked cigarettes for a few years and gave them up,” Whinery said.

Kolbusz is sympathetic to business owners, stating that though he supports the ban, he wishes there was a way for the small businesses to adjust without such abrupt change. However, he does not believe the 21 and over nicotine ordinance is enforced very often, leaving vape products available to any susceptible underage student.

In addition to posting about the ban in the Bongz and Thongz store windows, Whinery said he has been encouraging customers to contact state officials to renounce the ban.

“We’ve learned, as a business, that there is something that we can do,” Whinery said.

Ann Arbor smoke shop Red 13 posted a similar notice in their store, providing customers with a pre-generated email to send to the Governor’s office. Red 13 was unable to comment by the time of publication.

Nevertheless, Whinery said Bongz and Thongz plans to continue selling flavored e-cigarette juice until Whitmer’s ban is “stamped and signed and sealed.”