E-Cigarette Retailing Is Booming

E-Cigarette Retailing Is Booming

There are 25 retailers in Minnesota alone.

After smoking cigarettes for 30 years, Deb Morin was ready to stub out her addiction, burdened by the growing stigma attached to tobacco. Her turn to a less harmful alternative became a business with the rather street name of ECig Crib.

Opened in 2011, the “vape” shop in Coon Rapids was one of the first in Minnesota to sell electronic cigarettes. Powered by a rechargeable battery, the devices turn liquid containing varying amounts of nicotine into vapor.

You could call it a fad; the emergence of e-cigarettes has sparked the growth of roughly 25 such retailers in the state, most in the last year, says Chris Tholkes, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Since e-cigarettes are not yet regulated, their risks are largely unknown. Pressure has been building for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate. Morin says she, for one, is “all for regulation . . . I welcome it” for the quality control it would force on the marketplace, as well as regulation’s tendency to push out shady operators.

Morin says quality control is what distinguishes the array of entrants in the category. Lesser operators “think it’s easy and quick money,” she says. Her hottest sellers are starter kits, which come equipped with supplies for two e-cigarettes. With a price tag of $40 to $70, Morin sells around $3,000 worth of them per month. She says the business is profitable.

The market isn’t expected to vaporize anytime soon. Bloomberg estimates e-cig sales will top $1 billion this year and surpass cigarette sales in the next couple of decades.

Morin now has three vape shops in the metro area (the Coon Rapids flagship, plus one each in south Minneapolis and Forest Lake). The majority of her clientele is 25 to 34 years old; she says she is offering smokers an alternative, not “marketing to younger people because it’s cool.”

Morin says her products meet state guidelines for nicotine content, and that she vets her Minnesota-based nicotine supplier as well. Minnesota is the only state to tax the devices (at about the same rate as cigarettes), and to require buyers be at least 18 years old.

Critics question the industry’s broader goals. “As I watch some of the ads, I feel like it’s an ad for a cigarette,” says the Department of Health’s Tholkes. “It feels like their intention is to normalize the use of tobacco again.”