E-Cigarette Users Would Ignore Bans, Turn to Black Market, Survey Finds

Homemade e-liquid would become popular, community leaders say.

Michael Crespo, a salesman, waits for customers as he enjoys an electronic cigarette at the Vapor Shark store on April 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
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Many electronic cigarette users would turn to the black market if products they currently use are banned, according to survey results published Thursday.

The finding was reported by the E-Cigarette Forum, which administered a 75-question online poll to 10,000 members in late June and early July.

About 79 percent of respondents said they would “look to the black market” if products they use “were banned tomorrow," while 14 percent said they would return to smoking analog cigarettes.

The remainder said they would try to kick their nicotine addictions entirely. An option wasn’t provided for continuing to use the devices and adjusting to prohibitions.

[READ: E-Cigarettes Face Dizzying Number of State, Local Fights]

“We’re really talking about a gray market,” says Oliver Kershaw, founder and CEO of the forum. He doubts people pursuing do-it-yourself approaches or placing international orders would be guilty of crimes.

Flavor bans are the most commonly discussed product restriction pushed by politicians and some anti-smoking activists.

Home-blended e-liquid would become common in response to flavor bans, forum co-founder Neil Mclaren says with certainty. E-liquid is generally a combination of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, tobacco-derived nicotine and flavoring.

“A lot of the flavors in the big-name e-liquids are coming from traditional food flavoring houses that anyone can ring up,” Mclaren says.

[REPORT: E-Cigs as Likely as Nicotine Patches to Curb Smoking]

“A lot of these companies are well-known in the vaping community – a lot of people do ring them up and buy their base flavors and mix their own flavors directly,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine an industry would spring up providing flavors … and it could spread very quickly by word-of-mouth, ‘this was your old flavor that you used to love.’”

Kershaw notes “this runs counter to the regulatory goal, which is to ensure safety.”

More than 30 percent of people who completed the questionnaire said they prefer fruit flavor e-liquid, followed by 22 percent who favor tobacco flavoring and 19 percent who like bakery or dessert options. Candy flavors were the top choice of 4 percent.

The E-Cigarette Forum is based in London, but 80 percent of its 200,000 members are American, Kershaw says. About 78 percent of survey respondents were American, 5 percent were Canadian and 5 percent were British.

Several Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have advocated for flavor bans, suggesting options such as bubble gum and cotton candy either intentionally or incidentally appeal to children.

“You two, you’re what’s wrong with this country,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told the leaders of e-cigarette makers NJOY and blu eCigs, two of the three largest players in the U.S. convenience store market, on June 18 after other senators harangued the men about flavor options.

“I’m ashamed of you, I don’t know how you go to sleep at night, I don’t know what gets you to work in the morning, except the color green, of dollars,” Rockefeller said.

[RELATED: Senator Says Adults Prefer Tobacco Flavor E-Liquid, Demands More FDA Rules]

Miguel Martin, president of the second-bestselling convenience store brand Logic Technology, which does not offer many flavor options, told U.S. News in June he would support banning certain flavors. That position was panned as “a blatant case of trying to ban the competition” by Carl V. Phillips, scientific director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, the largest grass roots e-cigarette consumer group.

Most survey respondents said they do not shop for their e-cigarettes at convenience stores, and most use devices with larger batteries and e-liquid tanks.

There’s currently no major U.S. legislative push to ban flavors. But there’s some concern that the burden of other regulations might squeeze smaller companies that offer flavors out of the marketplace.

The Food and Drug Administration released its first proposed rules for the increasingly popular devices in April – for which a public comment period ends in August – and though most proposed regulations are uncontroversial they would impose significant compliance costs.

The long-term health effects of e-cigarette use are unknown. Preliminary studies suggest they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.