'Straight-up panic': U.S. vaping crackdown sends some scrambling for their fix

BOSTON (Reuters) - When Massachusetts announced a four-month ban on vaping products this week, Chris Soares was ready, having amassed more than 20 bottles of flavored, nicotine-laced vape fluid, enough to supply his daily habit well into next year.

FILE PHOTO: A man uses a vape device in this illustration picture, September 19, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abisi/Illustration - RC154574D400

“I was doing a doomsday prepping kind of thing,” said Soares.

Many of his fellow vapers across the state described similar jittery alarm and anger this week at being suddenly cut off from their preferred source of nicotine while the tobacco cigarettes that many vapers revile remain legal.

Some vape stores saw a last-minute rush of buying from panicky vapers on the evening the ban was announced. Photographs of hauls blossomed on internet vaping forums, drawing replies from other users making desperate offers to buy some of the stash.

Public health experts had in recent years cautiously welcomed vaping as a less dangerous alternative to cigarettes. But a sudden swell of mysterious, sometimes deadly lung injuries linked to the habit has overshadowed that, disrupting a burgeoning industry. U.S. President Donald Trump said this month he planned to ban most flavored vaping products, saying he was concerned they were hooking children who had never previously smoked tobacco.

In Massachusetts, not everyone had the foresight of Soares to stockpile supplies before the ban. Some instead mapped out weekend forays to vape shops in more lenient neighboring states.

A few grudgingly welcomed the clampdown as an invitation to quit nicotine in any form, while others feared lapsing into the habit of smoking tobacco despite its links to cancer and other illnesses.

In Soares’ case, the 32-year-old manager at a produce company had seen the alarming headlines about a strange lung disease linked to vaping, which has now left more than 800 people sickened and 12 dead around the country. He became worried when Michigan and New York responded by banning the sale of most flavored vaping products this month. Massachusetts, he figured, would likely follow suit.

“So I placed very large orders over the last couple of weeks while I had the money available,” he said.

He skipped around various online retailers, ordering little brightly colored bottles of so-called e-juice in his favorite flavors: Old Grumpy Bastard, which tastes like butterscotch when vaporized in an e-cigarette and inhaled; a strawberry flavor made by Jam Monster; Bad Drip’s Don’t Care Bear, which tastes like gummy candy.

Soares keeps his stash in a black toolbox in his kitchen at his home in New Bedford. A photograph of the haul he posted to a vaping message board on Reddit drew supportive and admiring replies.

Online forums have become a clearing house of tips on where to source supplies or how to minimize the misery of quitting. Many users have signed on to vent at restrictions and bans they see as misguided, with most of the illnesses appearing to be linked to black-market or bootleg unregulated vaping products containing cannabis derivatives.

In announcing the temporary ban, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said it was necessary to address a public health emergency and to allow medical experts to better understand and regulate whatever is causing the lung injuries.

Frank White had long sold vaping products at the Vault, his family’s store in Northampton, Massachusetts. He said he saw a rush of customers on Tuesday night buying in bulk and cursing the governor after the ban was announced, causing him to stay open an extra hour.

“It’s a straight-up panic here,” he said before blaming the governor for what he called a “bad health experiment.”

“He put thousands of New Englanders at risk of smoking cigarettes or going onto the black market,” he said.

In Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, Jack Patel and two of his employees at Cigars & More were emptying out half the products in the shop and moving it to storage.

“It’s ridiculous,” Patel said. “It’s just going to promote more black market sales.”

Zach Valencia, a 20-year-old student and self-described “full-time vaper” at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said he and his friends drove around looking for refill pods for their JUUL e-cigarettes before finding a store still selling.

He got one box of mango JUUL pods, but is still pinning down what he will do when that runs out, and is looking into driving up to Vermont for future supplies.

“I’ll do what I can do,” he said. “Buy in bulk, maybe start selling to my friends and turn a little profit.”

(This story refiles to fix first byline to Jacqueline, from Jackie)

Reporting by Jacqueline Tempera in Boston and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis