EAST HANOVER, N.J. -- Adam Mitrani opened his first Darth Vapor e-cigarette shop six years ago after his carwash business collapsed.
Before long, Mitrani, 48, had a second store in New Jersey and one in New York. Business was brisk, he said, and he was optimistic that offering smokers an alternative to tobacco would help him coast into retirement within 10 years.
Instead, he is shutting down one of his New Jersey stores at the end of the month and preparing to stock the very item he has spent years helping customers quit -- tobacco -- in the other.
Darth Vapor, like roughly 270 similar shops in New Jersey, is filled almost entirely with products that will be illegal to sell in the state by mid-April.
Faced with growing fear about the risks of vaping, New Jersey last month became the second state to adopt legislation outlawing all nicotine vaping liquids other than those flavored to taste like tobacco.
It has banned all fruit- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes and cartridges, which are popular with teenagers, as well as most nicotine-infused liquids that are used in larger, hand-held vaping devices and are commonly sold in vape shops.
Under New Jersey's new law, Darth Vapor's rows of disposable e-cigarettes, menthol Juul pods and flavors with names like "God Nectar," "Joy on the Off Ramp" and "Apple Cinnamon Donut" must be gone by April 20. Only a handful of tobacco-flavored products can remain.
"How does a whole store that pays employees and rent survive on five flavors of tobacco?" Mitrani said. "The answer is it can't."
Many shop owners say they are selling off as much inventory as possible, operating on month-to-month leases and preparing to close. To try to stay afloat, others are making plans to sell pipes, tobacco products, CBD oil and kratom, an herbal supplement that the Food and Drug Administration has said can be dangerous.
New Jersey's move is part of a flurry of government action aimed at slowing the alarming rate of vaping by teenagers. Vape shops nationwide are grappling with FDA restrictions on flavored e-cigarette cartridges that took effect this month.
More than 5 million youths -- 1 in 4 American high school students and 1 in 10 middle school students -- now vape, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey released last summer. And across the nation, the sale of electronic cigarettes has become big business, climbing to $3.6 billion in sales last year, up from $1.5 billion in 2014, according to an industry report.
Massachusetts adopted legislation similar to New Jersey's in November after hundreds of people nationwide, many of them young men, were hospitalized over the summer with a mysterious vaping-related lung illness that as of late January had killed 60 people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the lung disease is "strongly linked" to vitamin E acetate, an additive in some products used to vape THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana.
New Jersey's law goes well beyond the new federal rules, which ban the sale of fruit- and dessert-flavored e-cigarette cartridges, or pods, that are placed in slim penlike devices, vaporized by a heated coil and smoked. Menthol cartridges are still permitted under the FDA guidelines. The federal rules also gave vape shops a lifeline by continuing to permit the sale of a staple product: liquids used in open-tank systems.
Supporters of New Jersey's ban say flavors are especially popular with teenagers and that any reduction in access to flavored nicotine will slowly drive down usage.
Inhaling heated chemicals -- most vaping liquids blend nicotine with propylene glycol -- poses health risks for adults as well, many supporters noted.
"Vaping is a health issue -- not just for young people," said Karen Blumenfeld, director of Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy, an advocacy group based in Summit, N.J.
"Getting flavored vaping products off the market will protect our youth," Assemblyman Herb Conaway, a physician who was among those who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement. "If we don't, we will have another generation of young people addicted to nicotine."
Vape shop owners argue that limiting sales in stores where customers already must be 21 years old will not significantly curb teenage vaping, especially since flavored products remain readily available online.
The law, they say, penalizes adults who turned to vaping as a way to quit smoking tobacco, which each year causes diseases that kill 7 million people worldwide, including about 480,000 people in the United States.
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine released last year found that e-cigarettes were nearly twice as effective as other nicotine replacement products, like patches and gum, for quitting smoking.
"Every smoker who does not quit because of a lack of availability of flavors is a public health failure for the state of New Jersey," said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a pro-vaping advocacy group.
Disposable e-cigarettes also are still allowed under the federal guidelines, a loophole that teenagers have begun to exploit by switching from refillable e-cigarettes like Juul to disposable varieties like Puff Bars, which come packaged with nicotine cartridges and cannot be reloaded. New Jersey's law makes disposable e-cigarettes illegal to sell.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy, in a memo, called the new law "a necessary step to address the vaping epidemic among our state's youth."
But the Democratic governor vetoed a related bill that would have raised the fines for selling vaping or tobacco products to people younger than 21, required age verification scanners at stores and capped the legal concentration of nicotine in vaping liquids sold in New Jersey at 2%.
Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, a Democrat, opposed the flavor ban legislation, saying it would hurt small businesses without making a significant dent in what he agreed was a crisis in teenage vaping.
"Nothing we did prevents people from finding the product -- either on the black market or the internet," Burzichelli said. "We've lost the ability to tax it. We've lost the ability to regulate it. We're going to send them elsewhere to obtain it."
SundayMonday Business on 02/23/2020