Clint Pettee smoked cigarettes for 17 years as a construction worker, but after finally switching to vapor, he decided to open an e-liquid manufacturing lab.
Inside River Reserve’s Vancouver warehouse on Thursday, workers in lab coats and hair nets mix flavored vape liquids inside a glass cleanroom.
But what was once a growing business is now having to regroup after the state banned 90 percent of its products — flavored e-liquid — for 120 days on Wednesday. The ban also impacts more than a dozen retail vapor shops in Vancouver that sell the flavored vape liquid as an alternative to smoking.
River Reserve has had to scale back half of its production and is considering layoffs amid the ban, said Pettee, co-owner of River Reserve.
The workers have shifted to making much more tobacco-flavored liquid, the only legal nicotine e-juice allowed in the state. Those flavors include mild, bold, natural and sweet tobacco. They have accounted for only 5 percent of flavors bought by his customers, who are adults, he noted.
“It’s a far cry from blueberry,” he said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called for the ban last month as a way to prevent kids from vaping the addictive substance. It was also to prevent a spike in lung diseases linked to vapor, though not the kind sold in vape shops, Pettee said.
The state Board of Health formally adopted the four-month ban, which could be renewed, on Wednesday.
One retailer in Vancouver, O Vapor, shut down its six shops in Washington in advance of the ban. Pettee said he expects a majority of the vape shops in the state to shut down, too.
The River Reserve staff loaded into a passenger van Wednesday and drove to Seattle to join hundreds of protesters who urged the Board of Health not to ban the e-liquids.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “It would be nice to have a bridge with our government.”
Pettee and his business partner, Shaun D’Sylva, have been lobbying state legislators and meeting with elected officials for years to inform them of vaping, which they say is a safer alternative to smoking.
“There’s a demand for these (flavored) products,” Pettee said. “To create more of a black market is even more ignorant.”
River Reserve only sells its products to vapor shops because he doesn’t want stores or gas stations to expose the products to minors. About 70 percent of its revenue is from shops in Washington, he said.
E-liquids in Washington were also hit with a new tax at the beginning of the month that caused manufacturers like River Reserve to raise prices.
Business as usual
At Fatboys Vapors on Chkalov Drive, Manager Mike Roth has heard no official order to remove flavored products from his shelves.
Fatboys was not considering laying off any of its four employees, but the business is shrinking. Inventory is dwindling from 150 flavors to 15 flavors, Roth said.
“It’s naturally going to downsize to fit into this law,” he said.
As of Thursday evening, the store had about 300 bottles of flavored e-liquid still in stock and for sale.
“As of now, we’re operating until we’re told from someone with authority comes in and tells us to take it down,” he said. “When it happens my whole store is going to go into chaos.”
Fatboys has not placed any orders from manufactures like River Reserve for flavored e-liquids, Roth said.
Pettee said he is determined to keep River Reserve in business amid the blows to his industry.
“My vision was to get into this community and educate smokers that there are options,” he said. “I believe in this.”