The e-cigarette market emerged and has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry in less than a decade. In the U.S., it’s estimated that over 9 million vapers generate economic activity that fuels 15,000-20,000 new U.S. businesses, none of which existed 8-9 years ago. Vape shops occupy previously vacant store-fronts, and distributors, hardware manufacturers, e-liquid makers and related subsidiary businesses are creating family-supporting jobs, generating sales, income and property tax revenues for government. All of them are working to provide non-combustible, non-tobacco alternatives for adult smokers and vapers.
When it comes to e-cigarette policy, it’s critically important for policymakers to recognize that most of these businesses are not tobacco companies. In fact, like NJOY, they directly compete against tobacco companies. According to a survey in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, over 99 percent of vapers are smokers or former smokers. With over 40 million smokers remaining in the U.S., how government chooses to tax and regulate e-cigarettes will largely determine to what extent those 40 million adults remain customers of tobacco companies or whether small businesses across the country are able to compete fairly and lure smokers toward their non-combustible alternatives. In the American tradition, we’re fighting for the same customers. Passing additional, onerous taxes, passing strict e-cig policy, or regulating vapor products as if they were tobacco cigarettes will simply incentivize people to keep smoking.
In order to avoid that consequence, it’s critically important that legislators keep three things in mind when considering any e-cigarette policy initiatives related to this disruptive technology. In order for these thousands of small businesses to compete fairly with tobacco companies, it’s critically important that e-cig policy allows vapor products to remain affordable, accessible and appealing for adults.
Vapor Products Must be Affordable
There are a lot of reasons long-term smokers switch to vaping. Besides some of the obvious ones like no more yellow teeth or smelling like an ashtray, many switch to save money. Money is a great motivator. A recent industry analysis estimated that depending on the type of vapor products used, a smoker making a complete switch from smoking to vapor products could save anywhere from $450-$2200 per year. Shortsighted proposals adding additional taxes on vapor products (which as explained in #3 here won’t raise sufficient revenue) will simply incentivize smokers to keep smoking. Taxing people for smoking is one thing, but creating an additional tax on people because they chose to stop or reduce their smoking is unconscionable.
Vapor Products Mustbe Accessible for Adults
Over 40 million Americans currently smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes can be bought at hundreds of thousands of locations across the country – gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, discount tobacco outlets, drug stores, airports and adult venues of various types. In order for independent vapor companies to compete with tobacco companies, adult consumers must have access to the products they sell.
Taxes and expensive, excessive regulations drive these businesses away, diminishing access for consumers. Already in Washington, DC and Chicago, small businesses have closed up shop altogether or moved just outside city boundaries to avoid government-imposed taxes and costs to doing business. And it’s critically important to remember that it’s not just the businesses and their employees who lose out in this scenario. It’s not just the taxpayers and governments who will no longer see those property, sales and income tax revenues. The biggest losses are borne by those who switched completely or partially from smoking to vaping who can no longer buy the products they prefer in their neighborhood or entire city.
Let’s be honest. It’s doubtful that vapor products will be as accessible as tobacco cigarettes anytime soon in the U.S. To be fair, some e-cigarettes (including some NJOY products) are available in many places where cigarettes are sold and many adults use and enjoy those products. But a significant segment of the market includes products that are not available in those locations. Many vapers drive 5, 10 or 15 times further to buy e-cigarettes than they could drive (or walk) to get a pack of smokes. And sometimes, there are no brick and mortar locations nearby that carry products consumers prefer, so vapers they wait days for products to be shipped after an age-verified transaction.
At the end of the day, it would be nice to live a world where every place an adult can buy cigarettes, he had the option to instead consider a wide variety of vapor products. It is a bad thing when e-cig policy makes it impossible for thousands of small vapor companies to compete and simply offer alternatives to cigarettes.
Vapor Products Must Be Appealing
For good reason, this is priority is misunderstood and under appreciated. Ultimately, it’s rooted in the fact that people misunderstand the fundamental nature of vapor products and the ways they are used by consumers.
First and foremost, vapor products are not cigarettes. Once a smoker switches completely to a vapor product, he no longer behaves like a smoker because he isn’t a smoker. He is participating in a distinctly different activity. Second, and equally important, vapor products are not medicines intended to treat any disease or medical condition. This consumer-driven revolution appeals particularly (and almost exclusively) to smokers and former smokers. Celebrate this disruptive technology and realize that it only continues to work if adults actually enjoy the products. Take away the enjoyment and the products no longer appeal to adult smokers. You tolerate medicines to treat an illness or a medical condition. Vapor products are not medicine and they only work (and bring their ancillary benefits) if adult smokers and vapers find them more than tolerable – they must find them enjoyable. Some that are in the mindset of thinking it’s problematic for adults to enjoy the products are caught up in that “medicine mindset.” They need to realize it and break out or their e-cigarette policy responses will keep more smokers smoking.
Next it’s important to recognize and appreciate attributes that particularly make products appeal to adult smokers and vapers. Honestly, there isn’t enough time to list them all here. But the two most important attributes that must be mentioned here are e-liquid flavors and devices. Like snowflakes, every vaper is unique. If you ask an experienced and enlightened vaper what is the best vapor product for someone to use, he will tell you “the one that works best for you.”
Just as one person prefers sweet foods while another chooses savory, or one person loves vanilla latte and another likes chai tea, vapers have different flavor profiles and preferences. One might enjoy oatmeal with blueberries in the morning and a glass of scotch at night. Another might love warm apple pie, but if she ate it every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it would get old quickly. It is the same thing with vapers and flavors. At the start, tobacco or menthol flavors might make sense for someone who’s been smoking for decades. It’s certainly less intimidating to them (because as smokers, they don’t yet understand vaping). Some prefer those “cigarette flavors” for years. Others learn quickly that they actually don’t like the taste of cigarettes as much as they thought or they prefer to stay far away from “cigarette flavors” because it’s a little too close to smoking for their comfort.
Some smokers find it easier to transition to vaping by using a “cig-a-like” device that looks and feels similar to a cigarette. Some use those products long-term. Others find the devices trigger muscle memory that is a little too close to smoking for their comfort and switch to larger devices that feel different, last longer, provide vapor differently and in the long run are more cost effective. Simply put, different devices have different attributes that appeal to different consumers the same way that people value varying attributes in different automobiles. Some want (and can afford) a red sports car convertible. For others, a minivan is a much more practical option. As the enlightened vaper realizes and the policymaker needs to learn, the best device is the device that works best for you individually. E-cig policy must protect consumer options to choose products that work best for them.
It’s important for all of us to remember that elected officials and health department officials deal with many important and complex issues. None are, or can be expected to be experts in all things. Most are not experts in vapor products and many are bombarded with a lot of confusing and misleading information. So, it’s incumbent upon vapor advocates to keep this in mind and make every effort to responsibly and respectfully educate leaders about the nature of products, how they are used and how e-cigarette policy considerations impact real lives.
However, it is also important for public servants and public health leaders to recognize that millions of vapers are not the enemy. In fact, those millions of vapers are the public that they pledged to serve. Rather than seek to “defeat them,” we encourage leaders instead to listen to them, learn from them and their experiences and work with them to determine e-cigarette policy. It’s way too early to abandon that aspiration.