Health Care

Vermont grapples with e-cigarette legislation — from taxes to manufacturing and marketing

Adam Tredwell
Adam Tredwell in 2009 launched Vermont Vapor Inc. in Castleton as one of the first U.S. manufacturers and wholesalers of “juice” for e-cigarettes. Photo by Carolyn Shapiro/for VTDigger

CASTLETON — Adam Tredwell didn’t like the taste of the first electronic cigarette he tried.

But when he started law school in 2007, the prospect of facing hours-long exams without a regular shot of nicotine was even more objectionable. Outside of the classroom, he still smoked tobacco, because the e-cigarettes that mostly came from China at that time lacked enough appeal to convince him to quit.

Two years later, when Tredwell’s mother dropped regular cigarettes cold turkey for the battery-powered version, they agreed that ex-smokers needed a better option. The law student, at Temple University in Philadelphia, spent his summer break at home in Rutland County concocting various formulations of nicotine-laced liquid to heat up and inhale with an e-cigarette.

With a perfected mixture complete in June 2009, Tredwell launched Vermont Vapor Inc. as one of the first U.S. manufacturers and wholesalers of “juice” for e-cigarettes. His mother, Linda Barker, runs the Castleton company’s companion shop, selling the bottled liquid in two sizes and e-cigarette equipment displayed in glass-enclosed cases.

“I want people to stop smoking,” said Tredwell, 36, who started smoking cigarettes in his mid-teens and now is a single dad with a 13-year-old daughter.

Vermont Vapor had an initial boom in business as one of the earliest U.S. suppliers and East Coast shops and now tallies about $24,000 per month in sales. Nationwide, sales of e-cigarettes and vapor products in the mass market – including convenience, discount and drug store chains but not small independent retailers – reached $811 million in 2014, according to IRI, a consumer products market research firm based in Chicago.

Today, though, Vermont Vapor’s future hinges on the outcome of multiple state proposals to curb the use of e-cigarettes.

In Vermont, as in other states and across the nation, lawmakers are raising questions about e-cigarettes that science has yet to answer. That’s not stopping some from pushing for restrictions on the products.

“The more the industry expands, the more regulation,” Tredwell said earlier this month, as he sat at a table in his shop and puffed on an e-cig. “And the worse it’s getting for us.”

Vapor trail

E-cigarette users don’t smoke. They vape. They use a metal device with a rechargeable battery and a small coil that heats a bit of fabric, like a wick, which soaks up a liquid cocktail of nicotine and flavoring and turns it into a vapor for the user to inhale.

Manufacturer safety standards for the devices, most made in China, are one concern of state and federal legislators and regulators. But the greater sense of unease centers on the e-juice and its ingredients, the potential health risks of heating them up, and the addictiveness of the nicotine in vapor form.

Four bills that would impede vaping in the state have reached Vermont House committees: H.93 would raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products or substitutes from 18 to 21; H.233 would tax e-cigarettes, as other tobacco products are taxed, at a rate of 92 percent of the wholesale price; H.171 calls for the same bans on smoking in public places to apply to vaping and would prohibit e-cigarette displays on store counters; and H.59, would restrict e-cigarette flavors to menthol.

Patti Komline
Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, is the sponsor of H.59, which would restrict e-cigarette flavoring to menthol, as a means of keeping children from trying the product. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, sponsored the latter legislation out of concern that fruity, sweet and candy-named flavors are aimed at children and could lure them to a nicotine habit when they otherwise wouldn’t choose to smoke.

“If you open it and you smell it, it smells like candy. It smells sweet,” Komline said of the watermelon-flavored version she bought and tasted. “They’re so gearing this towards young people to try to get them to smoke.”

Some adults have told her that blueberry and other e-cig essences helped them quit tobacco. She sympathizes with those people and remains open to discussion and possible compromise on the legislation, she said.

“It’s definitely better than smoking cigarettes,” she said. “But it’s not good. It’s addictive.”

The flavor-restriction bill would strike directly at companies like Vermont Vapor, which created a niche with its carefully crafted recipes. It offers 22 flavors – including ChocoMint, Café au Lait, Strawberry-Mango and Sugarhouse Blend – each in five nicotine strengths.

The law would leave the e-cigarettes sold by nation’s two largest tobacco companies – Vuse by Reynolds and MarkTen by Altria – which have the deepest distribution and dominate the market, as the only allowable products. Blu, the brand made by third-biggest U.S. tobacco company Lorillard, comes in a few fruit flavors.

E-cigarettes are battery-power tubes that vaporize a flavored nicotine fluid into smoke and are sold with tobacco products. These products come in a wide range of flavors, including cherry and menthol. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
E-cigarettes are battery-power tubes that vaporize a flavored nicotine fluid into smoke and are sold with tobacco products. These products come in a wide range of flavors, including cherry and menthol. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“We’d go out of business,” Tredwell said flatly. “There aren’t enough menthol smokers, and that would be the only flavor we’d be able to sell.”

No vapers would buy liquid without flavor, other than the handful who like to add their own flavors at home, Tredwell said. “It would taste like unflavored Robitussin. Nobody would use that.”

The proposed tax on e-cigarettes also would hurt Vermont Vapor, forcing Tredwell to either lower his wholesale price or risk losing customers, he said. As the cost of the tax will likely pass to users, Tredwell added, it will cut into the cost benefit that gave cigarette smokers an incentive to switch to the healthier alternative. His price for a month’s supply of e-liquid to satisfy a pack-a-day smoker, about $20, is far less than those packs of cigarettes cost over 30 days.

“I’m a big believer in taxing the bads to finance prevention,” said Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, who sponsored H.233 to make the law consistent across all nicotine products.

Limited evidence of health risks hasn’t deterred her from concluding that they’re there. “I don’t think people should be smoking, vaping nicotine, a tobacco substitute, and think they’re vaping something healthy. They’re not,” she said.

“It’s important for people to understand that this is not a health-neutral product. This is a product that has a health impact.”

Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, is clerk of the House Ways and Means Committee. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, is the sponsor of H.233, which would have e-cigarettes taxed at the same rate as tobacco products. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Rep. Bill Frank, D-Underhill, agrees. Even without a proven danger from secondhand vapor, the sponsor of H.171 said he doesn’t believe that restaurant diners, hotel guests or anyone in Vermont’s public gathering places should be subject to smoke or a substance that resembles it in an otherwise clean-air environment.

Also, if young people see vaping as less restrictive than smoking, they are more likely to adopt it and get introduced to nicotine, Frank said. The electronic products already carry less of a stigma than cigarettes, because they are deemed safer, he and the other legislators said.

Some research backs up his fears. The number of middle and high school students who said they never had smoked but used the electronic devices more than tripled between 2011 and 2013, from about 79,000 to more than 263,000, according to a Centers for Disease Control survey released in August.

“I honestly don’t think e-cigarettes are good,” Frank said. “Putting nicotine into your lungs isn’t a good idea.”

Taking a drag from his silver-colored e-cig and blowing an opaque swirl with a faint odor of cinnamon, Tredwell expressed his frustration at such thinking. He cited a 2013 study by a Drexel University researcher who found that involuntary exposure to e-cigarette vapors causes no health risks.

“They have no scientific basis for that, and that drives me insane,” he said of the legislators’ safety concerns. “Where’s the study? If they had that study, I would like to get a look at it.”

Little federal guidance

No federal regulations currently cover electronic cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a designation that would subject e-cigarettes to the same rules as other tobacco products. Those require manufacturers to register their products, list ingredients, undergo review for new products, include health warnings and provide proof of any marketing claims.

Product review and registration alone could cost Vermont Vapor hundreds of thousands of dollars, Tredwell said.

Until the FDA decision is final, manufacturers and retailers operate under no rules – other than the laws in some states. As of late February, 42 states had passed legislation relating to electronic cigarettes, most defining the product as a tobacco substitute and prohibiting sales to minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. It shows Vermont as the only state that requires federal child-resistant packaging on liquid for e-cigarettes. And 18 states have added e-cigarettes to smoking prohibitions in at least some public places, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation reported in January.

Tredwell launched Vermont Vapor with a goal of transparency. He openly names the ingredients in his product: glycerin, distilled water, flavoring and nicotine. Vermont Vapor’s menthol formula has propylene glycol and ethanol, because it needs the alcohols to dissolve, he said.

“Consumer demand has moved to the point where people just won’t buy it if it doesn’t say what’s in it,” Tredwell said. “If you’re putting it in your body, it probably shouldn’t be a secret what’s in there.”

The way he discusses his product, Tredwell sounds like a chemist, a sort of legal version of the methamphetamine-cooking Walter in the popular cable TV series “Breaking Bad.” To develop his liquid, Tredwell scoured chemistry books in the Castleton College library, some going back to the 1800s, when nicotine was used as a pesticide in tobacco. He found a few guidelines on an online biochemical forum from the Netherlands and on e-cig discussion boards.

Today, he can chat about the temperature at which substances will degrade into toxic byproducts and the amount of alcohol to lower boiling points. Glycerin, he pointed out, is common in toothpaste. He considers it preferable to propylene glycol, which is used in many e-cigarette liquids but causes allergic reaction in a small percentage of people.

Recently, he dropped the Vermont Caramel flavor because it contained acetoin, also found in food products but not guaranteed safe if heated to vapor form and inhaled.

“It could hurt people, and if we hurt people, they won’t give us money,” Tredwell said. “And my prime objective is to have our customers give us money.”

Tredwell declines to let visitors into his lab, for fear of contamination. Pure liquid nicotine is highly volatile. In a downstairs “clean room” below the shop, he works in full protective gear, with heavy-duty gloves inside a chemist box to mix the formulas.

“I guarantee it’s not safe in the absolute safe sense,” he said of the chemical cocktails in e-cigarettes. “Walking down the street is not safe. There are risks to everything.”

Safer than tobacco, but …

The health consequences of e-cigarette use are currently unknown.

Research has pointed to potentially high concentrations of formaldehyde, a carcinogen, in e-cigarette vapor. Another study found that some sweet-flavored e-cigarette liquids contained higher-than-safe amounts of two chemicals, diacetyl and acetyl propionyl, which are used in food but linked to respiratory disease if inhaled. Researchers also concluded that e-cigarette vapor can make strains of the already hard-to-kill MRSA virus more deadly and impede the respiratory system’s ability to fight it.

But the research is too scant at this point to link a definite danger to long-term use of the product, said Dr. John Hughes, professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, who has conducted extensive research on tobacco use. Only after multiple results with the same findings, he said, can researchers draw conclusions.

“We scientists love replication,” Hughes said. “First time, maybe it’s there. Show me a second or a third time.”

Photo by TBEC/via Creative Commons MUST LINK TO TBEC
Vaping. Photo by Vaping360/via Creative Commons 

The basic characteristics of vaping indicate that it is healthier than smoking, Hughes said. Smoke delivers nicotine from the lungs to the brain within 10 seconds, while vapor brings in smaller amounts of nicotine more slowly, he said. And it’s the burning of the tobacco that creates the carcinogens and chemicals that cause the greatest risk of cancer and heart disease.

Researchers also need to know more about the actual dangers of nicotine addiction for the body, Hughes said. Caffeine is addictive, for example, but isn’t known to lead to serious long-term health risks.

“In all likelihood, e-cigarettes are significantly safer than tobacco products,” Hughes said, adding that perhaps some metals released in the vapor could cause concern. “But they’re going to be very small in comparison to the toxins in tobacco smoke.”

With all the mysteries of e-cigarettes but the potential benefits for smokers who switch, Hughes and some other doctors support limited federal regulations. The FDA treats nicotine gum and patches as over-the-counter drugs, subject to rigorous and extensive review before they hit the market.

Hughes said that would unnecessarily impede access to e-cigarettes, but they do need more oversight than they would get from the FDA as tobacco products.

“We have to know they have good manufacturing practices,” he said. “And we don’t know that now.”

Even some health organizations have hesitated to censure e-cigarettes or push for regulation – primarily because they see the benefits of the products in helping people to kick the more evil tobacco habit.

“Current scientific evidence indicates that e-cigarettes are likely less harmful to individual users than combustible cigarettes,” reads an e-cigarettes “fact sheet” from the American Legacy Foundation, which formed in 1999 as a requirement of the settlement between major tobacco companies and most U.S. states to address longtime public health costs from smoking.

Legacy supports a shift to “less harmful alternatives,” according to its e-cigarettes page, but also “prudent and expeditious regulation.” It recommends measures that set a minimum vaping age of 18, eliminate candy flavors that appeal to kids, include e-cigarettes in smoke-free air laws and require manufacturing safety standards, including child-proof packaging of e-cigarette liquid.

Tredwell said he would like legislators to allow teens to make their own decisions – about smoking or anything else. Free access to a healthier alternative might keep them from trying tobacco, if they were otherwise inclined to do that, he reasoned.

And he said he would readily apply those opinions to his own daughter.

“If she wanted to, I believe she has the choice of what she wants to do with her own body,” he said, adding, “I’d give her arguments against this, too, because it is an addictive behavior. And if you can avoid an addictive behavior, it’s probably best.”

Correction: The name of a chemical in a flavor that Vermont Vapor no longer produces was incorrect. It is acetoin, not acetone.

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  • I can think of at least a half dozen folks that I work with that have quit traditional cigarettes for E-Cigs. Of those I’m aware of 3 of them that have quit using E-cigarettes and are now tobacco free. Every one of them will tell you they couldn’t of done it without E-cigs.

    In a land of attempting to reduce health care costs, the government should be embracing E-cigarettes for long term health care savings. Not looking to it for additional revenue.

    As an X-smoker I wish these had been around when I stopped. It seems government has become addicted to peoples vices. Tobacco, alcohol, now sugar. All of which they argue are health concerns.

    Now that alternatives for tobacco smoking have becoming available with technology; folks are now kicking the bad habits of the vices that the government wanted to stem with the taxes in the first place. The government now has to move to the lesser of the evils for revenue.

    Perhaps the government should look in the mirror to see who is addicted.

    • krister adams

      Randy: While I do agree with the idea that gov’t. may be sticking its nose in too many aspects of private lives, I must take exception with E-cigs. What is the vapor comprised of? Is vaporizing the components making poison? If meth. is not legal because it is essentially a cocktail of chemicals, why are E-cigs?

      • That is why I purchase my products from Vermont Vapor. I know the ingredients. They are also listed above in the article.

        Then, I did my due diligence and researched studies on inhaling the vapor and found nothing to deter me at all. You just have to make sure you are reading articles, both pro and con, read their sources, and use your common sense.

        And, believe me, it’s nothing like crystal meth.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    If you are a nicotine addict who seeks to use e-cigs to quit or as a less harmful alternative to smoking, sorry. The Vermont liberal elite has determined that these devices are to them just as culturally unacceptable as the real thing. You might want to consider instead taking up an addiction that falls under their aura of acceptance, opioids. This habit will allow you to obtain substitute/maintenance drugs at taxpayer expense from a regulated non-profit as part of a “harm reduction” strategy where ironically, unlike e-cigs, a less harmful substitute is promoted. Also, if your use takes you too close to where your life is in danger, Narcan is available also at no cost to you from public safety personnel or even provided to your own family members to keep on hand just in case. Yes, our Legislature and Governor are always concerned about “sending the wrong message” but have no problem putting nicotine addicts in the back of the bus and casting them as trash, all while
    making it clear that if you “find yourself” addicted to opioids, the Vermont taxpayer will be there to step up and see to your needs.

  • Dave Bellini

    The legislature feels they need to be involved in every aspect of life. If someone found a rusty nail on the floor the legislature would want to pass a bill about it.

  • Peter Everett

    It seems like every solution for an issue is a three letter word…tax or fee.
    Can’t the legislature do one thing without money? Is money the best solution EVERY time a bill comes up on the floor?
    For once, couldn’t the legislature to to do something without digging into the taxpayer’s pocket? Believe it or not, the money from taxpayers will dry up.
    The legislature should try a new and refreshing way to govern…not always using money (revenue) as the answer. Remember the saying “money, the root of all evil”.

    • Glenda Bissex

      The Biblical saying is “LOVE of money is the root of all evil”–that is, GREED.

      • Peter Everett

        I guess that defines our government, huh?

  • It just seems crazy that the government would want to make something that is far less risky(certainly not risk free) than cigarettes harder to use or even illegal. Even worse to make it so that the tobacco companies are the only ones who can operate legally.

    The point made above about how much savings would be made on the health care system are good. Even if the goal was to maximise government profit it could profit more from having far less health problems relating to cigarettes.

  • Nevin Zablotsky

    I do agree that this is first and foremost about money and less about altruism. RJ Reynolds and Altria understand profits and have learned how to produce harmful products which they convince us are not really harmful, or addictive. And once they are proven harmful they then appeal to our need to not infringe upon the individual to make their own personal decisions. The CDC pointed to a 2014 study in peer-reviewed Nicotine & Tobacco Research estimating that three of four people who use e-cigarettes continue to smoke traditional cigarettes. The biotin line is that ECigs are delivering a drug that is addictive. If we can prove it is safe and is manufactured under uniform standards, and is proven to be an effective smoking cessation aid, and is not available to children then it can be accepted as a worthwhile product. Why are we so in a Rush help those who are making profits from an addictive drug sell it. Haven’t we learned anything from the past 100 years of watching the tobacco industry kill and maim millions of people.

  • Clarke Comollo

    If they are going to outlaw E-Cig flavors I think they should do the same to flavored alcohol. Cherry flavored Brandy, Lemon Vodkas Etc. Alcohol is the biggest health issue we face. I smoked a pack of non filter camels for years. Bought an ecig, quit traditional cigs the same day . Within one week my health improved, no more coughing at night Etc. I have reduced my nicotine level every 2 months, and as of this month I am now at zero but still “vaping” a 0% nicotine strawberry flavored “Juice” I assume that desire will also just fade away. I am very vexed that unknowing people are making impassioned arguments against them without any real experience. Just uninformed naysayers, who would probably have argued against aspirin. I have tried all the other quitting methods, patches, gum, counseling Etc. E-cigs really worked great for me when ALL else failed and I would think that they could help others. ALL of the e-cig naysayers are non-smokers, so really who should we listen to? No illusions about it being healthy, but I’m positive they are better then cigs and much much safer then a day in New York Cities air. We should outlaw NYC.
    Thanks for hearing me out

    • Clarke,

      Great Job! As an X-Smoker I can relate. I was a Camel man myself 20+ years ago. Your story is so common, yet the legislature turns a blind eye to it and doesn’t want to hear it -only looking at the $$$ for pet projects. A tax on E-cigs will most likely effect the poorer folks as it’s a regressive tax.

      So much for the democratic party being for the ‘working people’. I find it interesting that the democratic party seems to be so quick to add regressive taxes on items when they claim to be the working party. Then after adding regressive taxes they turn around and claim our tax policy isn’t progressive enough. Their tacking taxes on both ends of the spectrum, or at least attempting to.

  • There seems to be a good bit of rationalizing the use of cigarettes and other addictive habits here. As I see it, the habits are all means of avoiding reality, at least for short periods. Wouldn’t life be better for all of us if we faced that reality and used the time for something productive to improve it ? Walking to the entrance of Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital from the parking lot on Saturday, I was sad to see dozens of cigarette butts along the sidewalk and in the lot, most likely stubbed out by patients or their caretakers prior to or following visits to their healthcare providers. I’d like to believe that the butts weren’t left by employees. Indulging such disgusting and unhealthy habits could be replaced, with a bit of will power, with perhaps, looking at the sky or the snow-capped mountains and other beautiful scenes here in Vermont or writing about them or sketching them or just talking with a friend, would be much more spiritually satisfying, healthier, and less costly to the taxpayers who, in the end, have to help pay the hospital costs of the reality avoiders.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Having non-smokers dictate our policies regarding availability, taxation and content of nicotine-related products is like having only men make up the rules about abortion…
    Also, excellent point, Mr. Comollo, about treating flavored alcoholic beverages as an obvious lure to children. Removing “flavored” alcoholic beverages would remove about 75% of our alcohol-containing products from the shelves including spiced rum, pretty much all “liqueurs” and so many of the microbrews and ciders that we celebrate and promote as “wholesome Vermont products”. We have laws prohibiting the use of colorful cartoon characters to advertise tobacco. How is it we allow Captain Morgan, Yukon Jack, Jose Cuervo and other fanciful, attractive caricatures to sell hard liquor? Beer and wine labels are meant to attract and dazzle the eyes with pictures of cute animals, pastoral scenery and food items.
    If we are going to treat all nicotine-containing products as “culturally unacceptable” then we must acknowledge that alcohol is alcohol and all products containing it must share in the blame for the problems caused by it.
    …Another glaring example of the over-the-top hypocrisy of modern-day Vermont liberalism.

  • Bill Godshall

    In sharp contrast to claims by many clueless VT politicians, the scientific and empirical evidence has found that nicotine vapor products (aka e-cigarettes):
    – are 99% less hazardous than cigarettes,
    – have never been associated with any disease,
    – are virtually all (i.e. >99%) consumed by smokers and by ex-smokers who switched to vaping,
    – have replaced more than 4 Billion packs of cigarettes worldwide in the past eight years,
    – have helped several million smokers quit smoking, and have helped several million more smokers sharply reduce their cigarette consumption,
    – are more effective for smoking cessation than FDA approved nicotine gums, lozenges and patches (which have a 95% failure rate),
    – pose fewer risks than FDA approved Verenicline (Chantix),
    – have never been found to create nicotine dependence in any nonsmoker (youth or adult),
    – have never been found to be a gateway to cigarette smoking for anyone,
    – emit trace levels of nontoxic aerosol that poses no harm to nonusers, and
    – have further denormalized cigarette smoking (as youth and adult smoking rates and cigarette consumption have declined every year since 2007 when vapor sales began to skyrocket).

    Besides, all of the following things emit more indoor air pollution than vapor products, but vaping prohibitionists aren’t complaining about or trying to ban any of them.
    – every exhale by every smoker for more than an hour after smoking every cigarette,
    – smoker’s clothes and hair,
    – cooking,
    – plywood and other building materials,
    – glues and paint,
    – carpeting and most furniture,
    – printers and photocopiers,
    – household cleaning products,
    – dry cleaned clothes,
    – hair sprays, perfumes, nail polish and remover,
    – air fresheners, and even
    – a cup of coffee or tea.

    All of the VT bills to ban or restrict vaping and vapor products threaten the lives of vapers and smokers, and protect cigarettes.

    Nothing like protecting cigarettes under the deceitful guise of protecting children and public health.

    Bill Godshall
    Executive Director
    Smokefree Pennsylvania
    1926 Monongahela Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15218
    [email protected]

    • James Mason

      “H.171 calls for the same bans on smoking in public places to apply to vaping and would prohibit e-cigarette displays on store counters”

      It’s fairly obnoxious to be walking indoors through someone’s vape cloud.

      This particular bill in no way threatens the lives of vapers nor smokers.

      • Paul Lorenzini

        Wrong, it seeks to make up for the lost revenue from the taxation of tobacco. It threatens the income of many hard working citizens.

      • Rich Lachapelle

        The dreaded “vape cloud” is down in the category of acceptably innocuous like any human-related scent that hangs in the air. If we obsess about vape clouds, then we need statutes regulating body odor, the scent of the deodorants to cover up that odor, perfumes, colognes, incense, candles and foods of all categories consumed in public. The fact that people obsess about e-cigs shows that this is simply yet another element of Vermont’s culture war. E-cigs BAD, heroin GOOD…

      • Rachael Scarlett

        Which is no worse than walking through someone’s perfume or cologne trail. And in many cases, smells better and dissipates much more quickly.

  • Jennifer Roberts

    Does anyone find it ironic tha they are trying to tax e-cigs and legalize marajuana?

    • Rich Lachapelle

      Their whole motivation for legalizing the bud would be for revenue purposes. The Vermont Legislature has an addiction problem…addiction to OPM, Other People’s Money…

  • William Hays

    Tax first, ask science later: the Progressive mantra.