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Sept. 22, 2020

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Hazel Dell’s Fuse Vapor to close, store’s licenses suspended

Shop 1 of 3 in state that didn't comply with ban

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Fuse Vapor in Hazel Dell is one of the first three shops to get hit with a license suspension for not complying with the state's ban on flavored vapor products. Owner Marcus Torres said he intends to close the store.
Fuse Vapor in Hazel Dell is one of the first three shops to get hit with a license suspension for not complying with the state's ban on flavored vapor products. Owner Marcus Torres said he intends to close the store. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A Clark County vapor shop was one of the first to be hit with a suspension of its vapor licenses for failure to comply with Washington’s ban on flavored vapor products, and the owner said he’s going to shut down the store.

Fuse Vapor Distribution Inc., the business entity behind Fuse Vapor at 303 N.W. 76th St. in Hazel Dell, was one of three suspended vapor businesses listed in a Wednesday press release from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board conducted 3,100 educational visits at Washington vapor shops after the ban went into effect. Most shops had already pulled their flavored products, according to Capt. Lisa Reinke with the agency’s tobacco tax and vapor enforcement unit, but 176 shops were still selling banned items.

During a follow-up visit, 28 of those shops still had flavored vapor products for sale, Reinke said. But when checked a third time, Fuse Vapor and two other shops were still selling flavored vapor products.

The other two suspended shops are both called Vapor City & Smoke — one is in Puyallup and the other in Spanaway. The Liquor and Cannabis Board said the three shops are the first in the state to be suspended due to violations of the ban.

The suspensions apply to all of the shops’ vapor licenses, Reinke said, both distribution and retail.

The shops can get the suspension lifted if they verifiably comply with the law within 24 hours. If they don’t, the suspensions will be extended to 180 days. As of Wednesday afternoon, Reinke said none of the shops had reached out to say they were complying.

Closing up shop

Fuse Vapor owner Marcus Torres said the suspension marks the end of the road for his shop, which has been in operation for about five years. He said he has no plans to reopen and now considers Tuesday to have been the shop’s official last day.

Torres said he disputes the board’s assertion that he was in violation of the ban, and he said he intends to contest the license suspension as a matter of principle, but he’s still closing the store — in fact, he said the closure was planned in advance.

“This is a dying industry for retail standalones,” he said.

Torres said he decided about a year ago to move toward exiting the vapor business because he expected that some sort of disruption or regulatory crackdown would pull the rug out from under the market.

The industry didn’t have sufficient regulation or standards in place for e-juice ingredients and manufacturing, he said, and that status quo couldn’t continue forever. Torres said he didn’t know exactly when the change would come or what form it would take, but it was clearly on the way.

“We’ve been ready for some sort of vapor apocalypse for the past year,” he said.

Even if the ban hadn’t happened, Torres said he still doesn’t see a long-term future for today’s crop of vapor shops. Within a decade, he said, he expects that most vapor products will be sold from convenience stores, with a few high-end vapor shops remaining.

Flavored vapor ban

The emergency ban was enacted with the goal of combatting two problems: A sharp rise in vapor product use among teenagers and the outbreak of a mysterious vapor-related lung illness that has so far sickened more than 2,000 people nationwide and led to more than 50 deaths.

Several states have enacted similar temporary bans. Gov. Jay Inslee announced Washington’s four-month ban of flavored e-juice in late September, and the state Board of Health formally adopted it on Oct. 9.

The ban was expanded on Nov. 18 to include all vapor products containing vitamin E acetate, which officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention had identified as a possible cause of the lung illness.

Vapor manufacturers and retailers have contended that the bans are hitting the wrong targets, arguing that most flavored-vapor users are adult cigarette smokers looking to quit, and vitamin E acetate is most often used as a thickening agent in black-market THC e-liquids rather than commercial vapor products.

Torres echoed those concerns and said the flavor ban was vaguely written in a way that made it overly broad. After the ban went into effect, Fuse Vapor began selling unflavored e-juice and simply giving away the flavoring additives. Torres said he thought that put the shop outside of the ban’s restrictions.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board disagreed, citing the Washington Administrative Code.

“The definition of ‘sale’ is basically you cannot give it or offer it free of charge either,” Reinke said.

She added that an undercover board agent had observed Torres continuing to sell flavored products, and that the board had documented advertisement posts on Fuse Vapor’s social media pages that used phrases such as “beat the ban.”

Torres maintained that he did not think he was violating the ban, but again stressed that he intended to close the store regardless.

“We were done. This was it,” he said. “Dec. 31 was (going to be) our last (day), no matter what.”

He’s not alone in that decision. Wednesday’s suspensions mark the first time that any vapor shops have been shut down through disciplinary action connected to the ban, but some vapor shops chose to shut down during the lead up to the ban, including O Vapor, which operated six shops including one in Vancouver.

Clint Pettee, co-owner of e-liquid manufacturing lab River Reserve in Vancouver, said in early October that he had to scale back half of the company’s production and consider layoffs.

The flavor ban will expire Feb. 7, Reinke said, unless Gov. Inslee and the Board of Health choose to extend it.