One level below the former home of the West Virginia Tax Department, Vandalia Mist Extracts & Vapors’ seven employees create products with names like “Convicted Melon,” “Strawesome Sauce” and “Wonder Cookie” in its lab as alternative rock blares in the background.
Those three products are just a handful of the Charleston-based business’ 99 flavors, or e-liquids, purchased by vape shops across the country for their eventual use in e-cigarettes. Owners Robert and Marta Hays say the future has turned bright for the young industry, after the Food and Drug Administration announced in July that it pushed back a deadline requiring its approval for many e-cigarette and vaping products.
“I got an alert from a consumer advocacy group that said we would all be going out of business, we would all be shut down by the FDA, and it was right,” Marta Hays said. “But two hours later, my social media blew up when the FDA made its big announcement. I had chills, because it’s a matter of life and death for people who can’t quit smoking.”
With the FDA extending the premarket tobacco application (PMTA) deadline from Nov. 4, 2018, to Aug. 8, 2022, companies now have more time to seek permission to keep their products on the market before being fully regulated. The FDA said in its announcement that it is “committed to encouraging innovations” that will help smokers quit cigarettes.
This is a sign that the agency is warming up to e-cigarettes, which typically contain nicotine but lack the chemicals of cigarettes, as a long-term health solution, said Marta Hays.
Schell Hammel, president of the Vapor Bar, an e-cigarette company which has a Huntington location, said the importance of the announcement wasn’t lost on anyone involved in the industry. She said it means nearly four more years for the FDA to evaluate the health benefits of e-cigarettes.
“We were a bit shocked, but we felt it was something that was absolutely needed,” Hammel said of the FDA’s announcement. “It will keep small business alive. It gives us time to work with the FDA.”
Marta Hays said this change is crucial for the e-cigarette industry because the current costs of PMTA applications would devastate its many small, family-run businesses. According to the FDA website, one application costs “in the low- to mid-hundreds of thousands of dollars (around $117,000 to around $466,000).”
“No one in this industry can do that,” she said. “We’re all small businesses.”
Most of the industry’s small businesses were started by and are sustained by former smokers. Hammel said she tried “every method known to man” to quit smoking before she began vaping, eventually inspiring her to open the first Vapor Bar location in 2011. Robert Hays said Vandalia Mist began in February 2014 when he found e-cigarettes as his solution to stop smoking cigarettes but there was little in the way of e-liquids in the Charleston area.
A few miles from the Vandalia Mist lab, Vintage Vaporium co-owner Jessica Fisher said she started the business in May 2014 after making the switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes. Most of her customers are made up of former cigarette smokers, too, she said.
“We mostly have older clientele that were smokers,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of millennials or ages 18 to 25 buying here.”
Fisher said the FDA’s deadline extension is further proof that the e-cigarette industry isn’t going anywhere. She added that West Virginia having one of the country’s highest smoking rates means alternatives to cigarettes should be encouraged in the state. West Virginia implemented an excise tax on e-cigarette liquids in 2016 at a rate of $0.075 per milliliter of liquid.
“West Virginia is one of the states that could benefit the most from these changes [the FDA made],” Fisher said. “But the excise tax is unreasonable. We want it to be easy not to smoke [cigarettes], we want people to afford the solution.”
Hammel agreed with Fisher, saying the additional fee from the excise tax may make cigarette smokers hesitate to make the switch.
Misconceptions of vaping may also slow some of the industry’s anticipated momentum, according to Daniel Waller, store manager of Lowa Vapor in Beckley. Being a young industry, concerns are still raised regarding the long-term ramifications of e-cigarettes effect on health, he said.
“I’ve heard from some customers that people will yell at them in parking lots or public places [while vaping] because they think it would hurt others,” he said. “But e-cigarettes don’t have that sort of impact.”
However, Waller said he believes most of the negative perception of e-cigarettes will fade the more people see it as a solution to cigarettes instead of a product intended to introduce young people to smoking. Opponents of the deadline extension say e-cigarettes could be a gateway to traditional cigarettes and need to be regulated in order to protect young people.
Marta Hays said if a person doesn’t smoke in the first place, he or she shouldn’t vape. She acknowledged that this position may not be ideal for the long-term viability of e-cigarette sales as cigarette smoking rates decline, but added that the focus of vaping has always been about health.
“We feel like this industry can be an answer to the tobacco problem, and now the FDA does, too,” she said.