NASHUA — The cars with Massachusetts license plates pull into gas stations and vape shops here steadily every day, the people inside them ready to stock up on electronic cigarettes they can’t buy at home.
Along the border in New Hampshire and Maine, sales of nicotine and cannabis vaping products have boomed since Sept. 24, when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker banned both amid an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries. At Stoner & Co., a cannabis dispensary in Biddeford, Maine, vape sales rose 76 percent. At Arcus Vapors in Nashua, sales of e-cigarette liquids and equipment have doubled.
“It’s putting me through so much extra hassle,” Kevin Niemira, 30, a Harvard, Mass., food truck owner, said as he took a drag at Arcus recently from one of his new Juul e-cigarettes. “I’ve come up at least four or five times. It feels better for me — I really don’t want to go back to real cigarettes because it’s that noticeable in my health.”
The surge in border sales is the most visible impact, but the ban is affecting people in other ways: More Massachusetts residents have requested the state’s free nicotine patches, gum, and other help to quit. And the state’s rapid decline in sales of traditional cigarettes slowed for a period, going from a nearly 10 percent year-over-year decrease during the month before the ban to a 4 percent dip during the month after it took effect, according to the investment bank Piper Jaffray, which tracks the sector.
The Baker administration didn’t dispute those numbers, but said that in November, the ban’s second month, cigarette sales fell by nearly 20 percent, the second-largest drop in three years.A spokesman said the sales fluctuate monthly and it’s not always clear why.
Multiple vape shops in Massachusetts have closed, and many employees were laid off. The state estimated that its $331 million-a-year vaping industry would lose millions of dollars in sales.
The ban will be lifted Dec. 11, but vape businesses in nearby states expect the stream of Massachusetts customers to continue because Baker recently signed into law the nation’s toughest ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine vaping products, aimed at curbing an alarming rise in teenage vaping.
Most businesses would celebrate a massive sales increase, but at some stores along the border, the tone is muted.
“Customers come in and say, ‘Oh, you must be thrilled,’ ” Ken Irons, general manager of Arcus Vapors, said. “We’re not happy that people lost their jobs or their businesses, or that they have to inconvenience themselves by driving hours to get something to try to make a better decision for their life.”
Federal officials said in November the lung injuries that have caused 47 deaths nationwide — including three in Massachusetts — were largely linked to vitamin E acetate, an additive used in illicit marijuana oil vapes, though there may be multiple causes. About 2,290 people have fallen ill across the country, including 90 in Massachusetts.
The Cannabis Control Commission has quarantined the state’s licensed marijuana oil vapes as it works to ensure the products can be properly tested for vitamin E acetate and other potential toxins, before deciding whether to resume sales.
Whether the ban has hurt or helped public health is difficult to assess, tobacco control specialists said, without knowing its impact on rates of smoking and vaping. Medical experts largely agree that vaping nicotine is likely less harmful than smoking cigarettes if there’s no contamination, but that nicotine vapes still carry significant dangers and should be used only by adult smokers. The highly addictive devices have helped many adults stop smoking, yet also hooked scores of nonsmoking teenagers.
Some health advocates praised the vaping sales ban because it added urgency for lawmakers to pass the flavor ban, which they believe will reduce youth vaping.
“The net effect seems to be a positive benefit for public health,” said Dr. Andy Tan, an assistant professor who studies tobacco control at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Making these [flavored] products not available right now will be a net positive benefit for young people, minority populations, and public health in general.”
Other public health specialists believe Baker’s ban may have caused harm by pushing people to traditional cigarettes or to the illicit market. About 31 percent of 169 Massachusetts residents surveyed online by the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network said the ban made them purchase illicit marijuana vape products. The state’s illicit market for pot vapes remains easily accessible, with numerous online delivery services openly operating, while nicotine vaping products have vanished from eBay and other Web re-sellers.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this emergency ban has had a negative impact on the public’s health,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University community health professor. “This prohibition approach just doesn’t work, especially when you have a product under high demand and one that’s addictive.”
While signing the new flavor ban into law last week, Baker said the decision to temporarily ban all vaping product sales wasn’t easy, but he felt it was the best way to protect people from the then-mysterious illnesses. He said he stepped up in the face of a failure by the federal government to aggressively regulate e-cigarettes.
“We did the right thing on this one,” Baker said. “I get the fact that it created some pretty serious disruptions for people.”
Since the ban, the Baker administration said it saw a four-fold increase in e-cigarette users calling its nicotine-quitting helpline and an 18 percent rise in the number of people receiving free nicotine patches, gum, and lozenges.
The administration “encourages residents to stop the use of cigarettes and vaping products, as both are harmful and can cause pulmonary disease,” a spokeswoman said.
Regardless, the people trekking to nearby states to buy electronic cigarettes say they feel healthier vaping nicotine than smoking. “If Massachusetts doesn’t want our money, we’ll just go elsewhere,” said Matthew Shover, 31, an e-mail supervisor from Quincy who has driven to New Hampshire and Maine for vapes. “A lot of shops are even giving discounts to Massachusetts residents.”
VERC Enterprises, a gas station chain, has seen nicotine vape sales increase fourfold at its New Hampshire shops and its cigarette sales in Massachusetts level off after steep declines in recent years, said owner Leo Vercollone.
“It’s pretty clear that adults who want their nicotine have gone back to probably the worst nicotine delivery system ever invented, which is combustible tobacco,” Vercollone said.
Medical cannabis patients have driven to Maine and Rhode Island, which accept Massachusetts’ cards, for their vaping products. Maine has fully legalized marijuana, and New Hampshire and Rhode Island have medical cannabis programs. But some patients can’t drive, and many have struggled with the reduced access to the product they say best treats their conditions.
“It’s been very devastating,” said Frank Shaw, 66, of Ipswich, who relies on his vape pen to relieve debilitating chronic nerve pain in his foot. “I have to deal with worrying about where I’m going to get the oil once my vape runs out.”