At the start of the year, business at The Cloud Vapor Co. LLC was booming.
Owner Devin Rueschaw estimated his 18-month old vape shop brought in $50,000 in sales. But by midyear, revenue had dropped 30%.
“This witch hunt for vaping started, and we went from the best quarter we ever had to the worst quarter we ever had,” he said.
That “witch hunt” began this summer when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a multistate outbreak of e-cigarette- or vaping product-associated lung injuries, aka EVALI. The CDC later linked EVALI to vaping THC-oil product vitamin E acetate, and tainted or adulterated vaping juice. But officials still cautioned against vaping, citing unknown health risks.
In the months since, the agency has confirmed 48 deaths nationwide, including two in Missouri, and nearly 2,300 injuries associated with vaping that required hospitalization. The median age of those affected is 23.
At the same time, President Donald Trump announced plans to ban flavors of vaping juices that health professionals say have led to a spike in teen usage. The president has since walked back his statements on the subject, but a ban is still possible.
Meanwhile in Springfield, City Council unanimously passed the “Tobacco 21 Act,” raising the age to purchase tobacco, and alternative nicotine products like vape juice, to 21 from 18.
The rapid change to the industry, health concerns and public perception of the product has left Rueschaw and other vape shop owners reeling. In the past six weeks, Springfield Business Journal research indicates at least two local vape shops, SunRay Vapors and Titan Vapors, have shut their doors.
Robert Sands, who operated SunRay Vapors downtown for seven years before shutting down in October, said he saw the writing on the wall as sales dropped nearly 60% from his peak months.
“Every day there was just another article about how dangerous vaping was,” he said. “A lot of people got scared and stopped vaping altogether.”
The CDC stance is clear: There is no safe tobacco product.
But what about vaping, which can be consumed without nicotine?
Dr. Steve Trombold, a pulmonologist with CoxHealth, said his views on the use of vape devices have evolved since he first noticed patient usage around 2014.
“It seemed to be an interesting addition to helping people get off burning tobacco. Our biggest concern initially was what might happen to the kids. It might be a gateway to get into who knows what,” he said. “I did tell the smokers from the beginning it needs to be a means to the end, not the end.”
As more research is uncovered, he questions that guidance.
“Cigarettes take a long time to do their damage, and we just don’t know the long-term effect of vaping,” he said.
Trombold said vaping’s most acute damage can include a flooding of fluid in the lungs and sudden respiratory disorders. He said with no limit to what can be used in a vape device, further damage is unknown and unpredictable.
But Rueschaw argues that traditional vaping is a safer alternative to cigarettes.
“The whole goal is to not vape anymore, and the easiest way to get yourself off nicotine is vapor,” he said.
News coverage of vaping-related illnesses and deaths has led some of Rueschaw’s clients to return to traditional cigarettes.
“I have run into a lot of our previous customers who think it is safer to smoke now,” he said. “Of course, I’ve had to school them. It’s completely untrue.”
He credits vaping with saving his life. At 27 years old, he had smoked a pack of cigarettes daily for nearly 14 years. Now, he vapes primarily nicotine-free juice.
“I was on a heart monitor before I opened my store. I was struggling to walk up and down stairs,” Rueschaw said. “My buddy convinced me to start vaping, and I could breathe again.”
Sands had a similar experience, and credits the switch to vaping from cigarettes for his improved health.
“Since high school, I was a pack-a-day smoker. Vaping has really helped me,” he said. “In my mid-50s, I’m healthier now – and I’m on no medication – than 10 years ago.”
Research from Johns Hopkins University says vaping is safer than cigarettes, but the habit is still not safe and cautions that nicotine is just as addictive in any form it’s consumed.
While Trombold cites the benefits of vaping in order to quit smoking, such as a reduced chance of lip cancer, he prefers patients try a prescribed nicotine inhaler or nose spray.
But his biggest concern with vaping is its allure to teenagers.
“It’s been a setback,” he said. “It’s a much bigger problem in the youth than the adults.”
The National Institutes of Health reports that in 2018, 37% of students in 12th grade said they vaped in the past 12 months. That’s up from 28% a year prior.
The rate of kids vaping is going up just as their use of cigarettes has reached an all-time low.
A decade ago, the NIH reported 22% of high school seniors smoked daily compared with under 4% last year.
Jean Grabeel, director of health services for Springfield Public Schools, has observed the rise in vaping among students.
In 2017, she said the district had 76 incidents of smoking or vaping in middle and high schools and that more than doubled to 160 incidents in 2018. Grabeel credited vaping.
“The rates were going down and vaping picked things up,” she said. “It’s so easy to conceal.”
She said several SPS students are serving on a new committee through the Springfield-Greene County Health Department dubbed The Springfield Area Vape Work Group. She said the group hopes to identify meaningful ways to discourage vaping.
One idea from SPS is a pilot program during in-school suspensions to educate students about the dangers of vaping. Grabeel said a handful of schools have rolled it out.
“We’ve really shifted from a textbook focus to skill-building,” she said. “We’re talking about those refusal skills. The common reason why kids use it is that a friend and family uses it. And the flavors are directly advertising to kids, we believe.”
Andrew Smart, who owned Titan Vapors before it closed on Nov. 30, said a decline in sales led him to shutter the business.
“It just felt like the right move to focus on something that one doesn’t have to check the news three times a day to see if one could even stay open,” he said. “The CDC really botched the vaping investigation and throwing out a false widespread panic that inevitably hurt all of the vapor industry, most importantly the smaller vape shops.”
He said after 13 years in the business, he’s ready to do something “bigger and better.”
Sands had a similar idea this fall. He closed SunRay Vapors downtown and opened Queen City Soda & Sweets around the corner on Park Central West. His new shop sells old-fashioned candy and craft soda.
“Being a vape shop owner, I felt like we were the black sheep in the downtown area,” he said. “We’re kind of the darlings of downtown now.”
As for Rueschaw, he wants to stay open and hopes business will rebound. Although the negative attention to the misuse of vaping devices continues to hurt sales, he believes the product is helping people quit smoking and reduce or eliminate their nicotine usage. That’s a priority, even though that means working a construction job and not taking a salary from the vape shop.
“It’s been a dramatic, positive change,” he said of the switch from smoking to vaping. “I wouldn’t open the store if it wasn’t.”
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