New regulations create hazy future for e-cig industry

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the first time, e-cigarettes will be regulated by the federal government.

Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would ban the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products to anyone younger than 18 and force companies to get approval for products before they are sold.

The use of e-cigarettes has exploded in recent years, growing at triple-digit rates to become an industry that generates more than $2.5 billion annually in the United States, according to the FDA. In 2015, 3 million middle- and high-school students reported using e-cigarettes, the federal government says.

West Michigan vape shops say they already don’t sell to minors.

But they also say that other parts of the 499-page ruling from the FDA could mean changes to the industry that may lead to some of the flavors vapers enjoy disappearing — including bubble gum, bacon and pineapple sorbet topped with strawberries (yes, that’s a real flavor).

Industry insiders say the new requirement for approval for every flavor could cost $1 million for each variety. Some stores create dozens of flavors.

Jamie Zichterman owns four Mitten Vapors locations in Michigan and one in North Carolina that sell vaping products and also retails the products online. He says part of the new regulations will put the industry in the hands of a few big players.

“That’s what I’m sure it’s mostly for, is trying to push out the littler guys who really can’t afford to do stuff like that,” Zichterman said.

That may not be an altogether bad thing by the reckoning of health officials.

“Kids may start using e-cigarettes because they see them as being less harmful. Many of those kids go on down the road to smoke traditional cigarettes, tobacco products, things like that,” Kent County Health Department epidemiologist Brian Hartl said.

The health department has been working to reduce teen smoking with a recent push to ban smoking in public parks and other places.

“Kids may not be using tobacco as much, but they are shifting their use to other products,” Hartl said.

“Would I rather a kid vape than smoke? Of course I would, but that’s why we don’t let people in here who are under 18 — we don’t want them to start anything that you don’t need,” Zichterman says.

He says that like cigarettes and other items restricted to adults, kids will find a way to get them.

But some vaping fans are welcoming the regulations, to an extent.

“Any random person could throw stuff together and call it a shop and you don’t know what they’re putting in there and the whole point of vaping is it is healthier than cigarettes,” said Chris Boonstra, who says vaping helped him kick a cigarette addiction.

Adam Firer is an executive with Joost Vapor, which has manufacturing facilities in Kentwood and retail outlets statewide.

“I really do think this industry needed to be regulated to an extent, by all means,” he said.

He said the vape industry is like the “Wild West” and the responsible manufacturers will embrace the regulation while others will try to find loopholes and ultimately fall away.

“The regulations are going to make it really hard for anybody to break into this industry now,” Fiere said,

As with any massive piece of regulation like this, there are a lot of unknowns that will have to be resolved over the two years the regulations will be implemented.

The future of the e-cigarette industry is as hazy as the inside of a vape shop, but one thing seems clear: The e-cigarette industry is going to change whether it likes it or not.

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