(Photo by Flickr user Sarah-Johsnon/Licensed under CC by 2.0)

Before Gov. Kate Brown announced a 6-month ban on flavored vaping products Friday, local vape store employees were holding their breath.

After the news was announced, Salem workers said they’re looking ahead to potential lawsuits, and for other lines of work.

Jay Gilbert, manager of NW Freedom Vape on Lancaster Drive, said 90% of the store’s revenue is from flavored e-cigarette juice.

 “It sucks either way,” Gilbert said. “I feel as though I’ve already lost my job.”

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In the wake of bans in other states like Washington and Massachusetts, Gilbert said customers have been stocking up, buying two to three times what they normally would.

“Yeah, they’re coming in and trying to buy us out,” he said.

ECBlend CEO Bob Foote said he won’t know how the ban is going to impact his Medford-based business until the Oregon Liquor Control Commission comes out with final guidance next week.

“The simple truth is it could very well cause us to go out of business,” Foote said.

The business has six retail stores in Oregon, among other states, and sells its products online.

Foote said the industry has been down 20 to 30% over the last month after news of vaping illnesses and deaths spread. He said the scares have nothing to do with the product his company sells, e-cigarette juice.

“We’re being lumped into this when truly we shouldn’t be,” Foote said. 

The Oregon Health Authority recommended the ban to Brown after two people in Oregon died from respiratory illness associated with vaping. Health officials haven’t given the exact cause of the deaths, but are urging people to stop vaping altogether.

"We don’t yet know the exact cause of these illnesses — whether they’re caused by contaminants, ingredients in the liquid or something else, such as the device itself," said Ann Thomas, a public health physician at OHA’s Public Health Division, in a news release.

Gilbert said he’s been searching for a new job and is thinking about moving back to his home state of Montana to work construction.

He’s not the only one who’s thinking they may need to find work.

Kyle Pham, an employee at II Vape Salem, also said customers have been stockpiling recently.

Pham, who has been working at the Salem store for almost four years, said he’s in a waiting period to see how everything shakes out, but “other than that I’ve pretty much got to find another job.”

He said he’s waiting to see if there will be lawsuits similar to the one Massachusetts vape shops filed.

Pham said Oregon isn’t willing to identify the actual cause of the deaths and is “leaving it on an ambiguous cause as vaping,” not specifying whether it was from nicotine or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most patients suffering from vaping-induced lung injuries had a history of using products containing THC.

“The latest national and regional findings suggest products containing THC play a role in the outbreak,” reads the CDC website.

Vape store employees say fears about vaping are pushing customers back to cigarette smoking or will drive them toward the black market.

Micah Gilday, manager of Valley Vapors on Commercial Street Northeast, said some of his customers have gone back to smoking cigarettes.

“We know that we have helped thousands of people to quit smoking something that was killing them,” Gilday said. “People are being misinformed on a very great scale right now.”

On Thursday, Gilday said if a full vaping ban went into effect it would wipe out the entire small business vaping industry in Oregon.

“This is our livelihood,” Gilday said. “This isn’t just a part-time job.”

Multiple local vape store managers pointed to one culprit for the ban – big tobacco.

“Essentially it is just a squeeze out,” Gilday said. “You follow the money, it’s big tobacco pressuring legislation to actually be able to control the market.”

Juul, the e-cigarette brand partly owned by tobacco giant Altria, is also being impacted by the ban. Flavored e-cigarettes represent the majority of Juul’s sales.

Campaign contribution records from the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in Politics show tobacco companies donated nearly $300,000 to Oregon candidates in 2018 elections, with the largest contributions going to Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and former House Minority Leader Michael McLane (R-Powell Butte).

During her re-election bid in 2018, Brown got $8,000 from the widow of late Philip Morris executive, George Weissman.

“How are we going to compete? I just don't understand that cigarettes kill half a million people every year, why aren't people talking about taking that off the market?” said Brian Roof, manager of Elite Vape Station on Center Street.

Roof said his grandfather died because he smoked two packs of Camel Straights a day all his life.

Roof was a cigarette smoker himself, going through a pack-and-a-half a day before he started vaping six years ago. He said he was able to lower his nicotine consumption using e-cigarettes.

“We believe we're doing something good here,” Roof said. “They’re not doing anything to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, saphara@salemreporter.com