Dozens of Massachusetts vape shops are at risk of going under because of a four-month ban on the sale of vaping fluids, cartridges, and accessories imposed by Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday over concerns about a mysterious lung-related illness.
While many convenience stores and other retailers offer vaping products — as do marijuana dispensaries — some businesses rely almost exclusively on them for their revenue. Baker’s emergency ban effectively shuts down those shops.
“Who’s going to really wait and retain a storefront, and pay the rent, and pay the insurance, and pay the bills if it’s not even guaranteed that they are going to be able to reopen?” said David Mattuchio, who owns two Vapor Station stores in Tewksbury and Woburn “And if they are able to reopen, what kind of products are they going to sell?”
Local boards of health on Wednesday were beginning to enforce the new rule. State officials are expecting most stores to comply on their own, taking products off shelves and suspending sales, but repeat violators of the order can receive fines up to $1,000 per item sold.
Other states have halted the sale of flavored vaping products, including Rhode Island, where Governor Gina M. Raimondo enacted the new policy Wednesday.
Until recently, the sale of electronic cigarettes and vaping products had been a growing part of the retail picture here and around the country.
The Vapor Technology Association, a trade group, said the industry supports about 2,500 jobs in Massachusetts. A recent Washington Post analysis found that the sector had been the fastest-growing retail segment in the past decade, driven primarily by small businesses.
But for many, that modest size means it will be impossible to survive without four months of sales — a period that will cover the crucial holiday season.
Mattuchio said that in light of the ban he has decided to permanently close both of his stores. He plans to lay off his four employees, and will attempt to sell his inventory to retailers in other states.
“This is unacceptable in a free country,” he said. “The government can step in with unsubstantiated proof and stop thousands of people from making a living.”
Like others in the business, Mattuchio believes illnesses associated with vaping are the result of illicit marijuana products, which have been a focus of public health authorities looking into the cases that have sickened hundreds of people and killed at least nine nationwide. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should consider quitting all types of vaping for the time being.
Baker said Tuesday that public health concerns are paramount, and that he believed he had no other choice but to stop sales until there is a better explanation for why people are getting sick.
Some people in the industry worry that consumers will wind up buying black-market vape products that will make them even less safe.
“They’re basically grouping a product that you get from a drug dealer with a bunch of products that I’m legally allowed to sell,” said Jonathan Lau, owner of The Vape Shop, with stores in Cleveland Circle and Oak Square.
Lau said his business has been off by nearly 40 percent since late August when concerns about vaping illnesses began circulating.
Lau said he was awaiting official word from health authorities before he halts sales. As of noontime Wednesday, he was still selling vaping products to customers who said they wanted to stock up.
Customers at the Cleveland Circle store expressed anger and confusion. Some spent hundreds of dollars.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” one man said as he walked into the shop. “I can still buy weed and a bottle of Jack Daniels. And I can still buy cigarettes!”
Lau said that during the four-month prohibition period he will try to keep the Cleveland Circle shop open by selling more traditional head shop supplies such as pipes and rolling papers, but he doesn’t expect the Oak Square location to survive and will have to lay off three workers.
Many owners of vape businesses say it’s a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, so they do not want to sell tobacco products as a way to get by while the ban is in effect. Mattuchio and Lau said they turned to vaping to help them shake smoking habits.
“It just goes against everything,” Lau said. “I got into this business to get away from Big Tobacco.”
Emilia Papanicolau, another customer, said she was able to quit smoking after 12 years because of vaping. If her supply of products runs out, Papanicolau said, she may travel to a state where their sale is still allowed. But she is not planning to return to smoking cigarettes.
“I don’t want to do that,” she said, “and everyone around me would be disappointed as well.”
She is hoping that the state quickly comes to a conclusion about what’s causing the illnesses, and allows stores to resume their sale.
Lau agreed. “I quit my day job for this,” he said.