It’s a frigid morning on December 18 in Battle Creek, Michigan with temperatures plummeting to -8℃. Thousands of people are braving the cold and standing huddled together outside the Kellogg Arena, which is hosting President Trump’s Christmas rally. As with all Trump rallies, there are sign-wielding supporters and protestors. But enveloped in a cloud of smoke nearby is another group: the vapers.
Among them is Marc Slis, a vape shop owner and one of the organizers of the rally. Slis says he’s normally terrified of public speaking, but he’s been a vocal critic of laws banning flavored e-cigarette products. Last September, he drove 500 miles to testify at a House Committee hearing on how banning flavored e-cigarette products would mean banning a life-saving industry.
Slis is one of 13 million American adults who use e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes and he says this ban is a matter of life and death. The industry is the fastest growing segment of the retail market over the last decade, according to Paul Blair of Americans for Tax Reform. And it’s because of this rapid growth that the issue of vaping has become so political.
E-cigarettes became a nationwide controversy when Melania Trump expressed concern about a “growing epidemic” of teenage vaping. In October, she invited a group of teenage former vapers to a listening session at the White House. She said she was glad that some stores were pulling e-cigarettes off their shelves and argued that they needed to be more proactive. Many people expected the President to swiftly ban all flavored e-cigarettes. Instead, Trump stalled for months. Multiple reports say he backed off out of fear that vapers would vote against him in the next election.
Both Slis and Blair say most vapers are single issue voters. According to the Adult Vaper Consumer Survey in Battleground States, 83 percent of vapers said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports a ban. Slis originally voted for Trump because deregulation was a major part of his 2016 election campaign. Now, he says he would vote for another candidate if the President goes through with a full flavor ban. “He won by a margin of less than 11,000 votes here in Michigan, one of the swing states. And we have a lot more votes than that and we will use them,” he says.
To somewhat appease both supporters and opponents of vaping, the Trump administration announced a limited ban in January. It applied to flavored e-cigarette pods, with the exception of menthol and tobacco flavors, and flavored liquid nicotine products. Slis sees the partial ban as a compromise that allows adults access to the products they use to quit smoking, while reducing, or temporarily eliminating, the ones proving most attractive to youths. Still, he doesn’t believe this partial ban will significantly reduce teen usage and instead only reduces the options for adults to quit smoking.
For non-vapers, the idea of an election hinging on a vape ban might seem far-fetched. But Blair argues that it has already happened. He says when Senator Ron Johnson ran for reelection in Wisconsin in 2016, he held rallies with vapers and was an outspoken advocate for the industry. On election night, Johnson attributed his victory to the support of vapers.
Blair says there are economic implications too. He says a blanket ban on flavored e-cigarette products could wipe out a multibillion-dollar industry and cost 150,000 jobs.
In November, Senator Johnson wrote a letter to the President to argue that an outright ban on the most popular flavors could force over 10,000 small businesses to close. With an election on the horizon and jobs on the line, Trump dialed back on a sweeping flavor ban. And although Slis applauds Trump’s efforts to hear both sides of the story, he says he will continue to rally with fellow vapers until all the restrictions are lifted.