Last month, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been in discussions with a number of e-cigarette company about the upcoming proposed regulations for electronic cigarettes, including a potential online ban. A few days ago, Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has also expressed his support for an online sales ban, as a way of protecting America’s youth. Online e-cigarette sales are currently estimated at around $500 – $625 million, but there is a big chance people will have to rely solely on brick and mortar shops and kiosks in the near future.
Let’s start with the obvious question – what would banning online e-cig sales solve? According to some people, including Senn. Bluementhal, the online environment makes it easier for minors to access electronic cigarettes, by posing as adults and using their parents’ credit cards to make purchases. They would have you believe the retail sector is much safer for children, when the reality is completely different. Thanks to modern Age Verification Systems (AVS) brands that operate on the internet have a great deal of control when it comes to only selling their electronic cigarettes to adults. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, V2 Cigs CEO, Andries Verleur, said his company does a cross-reference of its clients against their financial profile, by requiring online buyers to call into a call-center and answering different credit questions that only they would know. On the other hand, while e-cigarette companies claim they make it clear to retailing partners that their products are only intended for people of legal age, it’s much harder for clerks to verify customers’ age, or even ensure that they do. Plus, popular shipping services like UPS have “adult signature required” policies, making it even harder for minors to get their hands on e-cigarettes from the internet without their parents knowing.
But let’s say the above arguments aren’t enough to convince you an online e-cigarette ban has nothing to do with protecting our youth. What about online liquor stores? If children can easily buy electronic cigarettes on the internet, they can also order hard liquor from the many online stores operating in the US right now, yet no one seems worried about that. The truth is, unless parents are careless about revealing their credit details to their children, there’s no easy way for them to make online purchases. Adults should be allowed to conveniently access products intended for them, and make sure minors in their care cannot. Obviously, there is much more at stake here than the safety of children. As Gregory Conley, legislative director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association (CASAA), told U.S. News, an online ban would virtually force users to “go to convenience stores and buy products from the larger companies who are making inferior products.” And guess who these larger companies are. Believe it or not, it’s our old friends, the tobacco companies.
Lorillard already controls a big chunk of the US electronic cigarette market, through the Blu brand, which it acquired last year, but all the other major tobacco companies have announced their intention to follow suit. R.J. Reynolds has already launched the VUSE e-cigarette in Colorado, and Altria has begun selling the Mark Ten e-cig in Indiana, under its Nu Mark subsidiary. There are currently hundreds of e-cigarette brands and models available right now, but in the case of an online ban, most of them would go out of business very quickly trying to compete with Big Tobacco’s established retail chains and their virtually unlimited funds. Cigarette sales have been on the decline for years, and with many more smokers switching to e-cigs every day, they stand to lose billions. They quickly realized however that this is a Kodak moment (when cameras went digital) and decided that instead of fighting the trend, they were better off joining it. Now they stand to make billions selling the very things they initially fought against. As one ECF user posted, “if ever there was a mechanism to rescue big business’s tobacco cash cow this is it”.
So what would happen if a ban on online e-cigarette sales were to be imposed? Obviously, vapers would have to rely on brick and mortar shops and convenience stores for supplies, where they would only find a very limited array of hardware and accessories. Innovation will probably slow to a crawl as most convenience stores only sell cig-alikes (e-cigs that mimic analogs), and prices will go through the roof. But most importantly, there will be a large number of vapers gong back to smoking. Not being able to use the devices that helped them kick the habit will probably be too much to handle for some folks, and having to drive for miles to the nearest vaping shop for supplies is not exactly convenient. “I on the other hand am terrified I won’t be able to get the hardware I need. I live in a small town. The nearest B&M is a 7 hour drive away. If I cannot order by internet HOW am I going to get the gear I need to stay smoke free,” ECF user Myrany writes, and you can bet there are a lot of other people in the same situation.
What can we do about it? Well, some say the best thing to do is stock up on e-cigarettes and e-liquid, just in case, but even years-worth of supplies will run out eventually. May advice would be to join the fight against those who would take away our liberties and make sure an online ban never happens. Support organizations like the CASAA, attend their meetings and donate, if you can. We need to show the world the vaping community is strong enough to fight for our rights, and we can only do that united.