Eric Van Riper looked around the empty shelves of his Hanson store, Vapor Image, at 1000 Main St., where only a small display of sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats remained on display this week.
These items, and his CBD oils, are all that exists of his business after Gov. Charlie Baker ordered a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products in Massachusetts.
“It’s definitely restricted us from selling 95-percent of our inventory,” Van Riper said Monday. “We do some CBD sales, so we’re keeping the store open for that, and we’re finding that some municipalities are actually restricting vape shops from closing because they need to maintain their tobacco licenses.”
Vapor Image does not carry tobacco products.
“We’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place in that regard,” he said. “I think the writing is on the wall, I think, on a state and federal level, they want vaping gone.”
Health agents across Massachusetts, fanned out last week, armed with flyers explaining that the state had ordered a four-month ban on vaping sales, to be posted in public places in their stores. The packet included a letter outlining the ban on flavored and non-flavored vaping products, it’s immediate implementation and the penalties for violation — including fines and seizure of products; the order from the Commissioner of Public Health; the governor’s proclamation and a notice to place in the business.
Seen as the strongest effort against e-cigarettes across the country, Baker’s ban applies to both tobacco and marijuana vaping products, and is intended to allow a federal officials and medical experts to investigate the cause of an increase in illnesses tied to the devices.
“There have been so many pulmonary diseases — damage — across the country in people who vape,” Hanson Board of Health Chairman Arlene Dias said. “It’s not one particular product that they’re using, so they are trying to find out why it’s causing such significant pulmonary damage.
“I visited 11 places in Hanson that were listed as selling tobacco as part of their permit and to have them sign that they had received the information we got from the state,” Dias said. She said a couple of stores on the list did not have any kind of tobacco products.
“Everyone signed that they are aware of what the law is and that they cannot display or sell any kind of vaping products,” she said. “Most of the places in Hanson are combined, they have tobacco products and vaping and might have had a smaller inventory of vaping products,” she said.
Only one business in town, Vapor Image, sells vaping products nearly exclusively.
“I don’t know what other products they sell, but everybody else sells cigarettes,” Dias said. “I was really surprised at how many places we had in town.”
Van Riper said it has always been part of his company’s mission statement to get people away from using tobacco.
“We are vape-centric,” he said. “That’s something that I won’t waver on, but you can expect more smoke shop-centric items here just to kind of fill out the gaps in the interim.”
Van Riper said he is “planning for all eventualities” and trying to ride the situation out. He said he has fielded dozens of calls from consumers, some with existing lung conditions, who have experienced a lot of relief since making the switch to vaping and depended on his business.
“They don’t have a viable alternative,” he said, his voice breaking.
Elaine Williams, administrative assistant for the Whitman Board of Health, said her department sent out the order Wednesday, Sept. 25.
She said the state order pertains only to vaping products.
“I think the governor — I saw him on the news — and he had said they had considered those kind of situations, but the health [considerations] were more important at this point,” Williams said. She indicated there are no shops in Whitman that sell vaping products exclusively.
“I believe all the adult shops that we have in Whitman sell tobacco product, as well,” Williams said.
A Whitman Board of Health meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 1 was not slated to discuss pending revisions to tobacco sales regulations, according to Williams.
“I don’t know if they are going to continue to do anything because of what’s happened [with the vaping moratorium], if they are going to wait until January to see what happens with what the state’s going to do or not,” she said.
According to published reports, Danvers vape shop Vapor Zone filed a lawsuit Thursday, Sept. 26 in Suffolk Superior Court seeking to stop the ban at the state level, while a group of three shops in the state is preparing a federal lawsuit to halt the ban.
Van Riper said he is not involved in any lawsuits at the moment, but is rather standing behind the state trade organization, Vapor Technology Association (VTA).
“Not only is it an investment for me, but it’s been a passion of mine and we’re just celebrating five years,” Van Riper said. “We’ve dodged a lot of bullets and faced a lot of adversity. I think everyone kind of expected something like this, but to have it happen so abruptly, to me that’s just overreach of authority and to me it just reeks of corruption.”
He pointed to “a lot of the same politicians” that have campaigns funded by big tobacco and big pharma.
“It’s really just exciting the public, because the gun owners are starting to take notice, too, who say ‘They’ve been trying to take our liberties for a while,’” Van Riper said. “The implications and the precedent this sets is damning for anyone. We are seeing a lot of public outrage, whether they have a horse in the race or not.”
State law affords the governor authority to declare a public health emergency and to order that officials move to “insure the continuation of essential public health services.”
Dias said the Massachusetts order carries the potential for an extension beyond the four months.
California and Rhode Island officials are also said to be advising people to stop vaping immediately.
Dias said that, while companies claim their products are not marketed to youths under the age of 18, “a ton of kids are having access, even though they’re not supposed to, they’re still getting it, they’re still using it.”
She also said kids are not simply using the liquids manufactured for use in vaping products, they are also using THC — the narcotic agent in marijuana — into the vapes.
“It really was aimed at younger people,” Dias said of the fruit and bubblegum flavors sold.
Van Riper said he is encouraging his customers to contact Gov. Baker’s office to say that, as vapers and voters, they oppose the ban and talk about things that vapor has done to improve their health and that the freedom to choose flavors has affected your experience.
“Using flavors as a scapegoat is — I’m an adult, I like chocolate chip cookies just as much as I like a good tobacco flavor every now and then,” he said. “Removing that flexibility to choose would severely inhibit the industry.”