A qualitative assessment of business perspectives and tactics of tobacco and vape shop retailers in three communities in Orange County, CA, 2015-2016

Background In response to the growing awareness and use of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), or e-cigarettes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asserted its regulatory authority over ENDS in May 2016. Federal, state, and local regulatory action on ENDS may have significant and unique impacts on specialty ENDS retailers, including tobacco and vape shops. The purpose of this study is to describe the commercial motivations of vape shops in minority communities as business entities whose financial interests and actions may be particularly impacted by regulation of ENDS. Methods Specialty tobacco and vape retail stores in three minority communities were identified through an online search and community canvassing. Key informant interviews were conducted with tobacco and vape shop owners or managers discussing the business interests and tactics of selling ENDS for their store. Interview data were coded and analyzed for major themes. Results Interviews with 18 tobacco shops and 9 vape shops were completed. Tobacco shops’ reasons for carrying e-cigarettes were business oriented, focused on maintaining their customer base. In comparison, vape shops opened because of the owner’s positive experiences with e-cigarettes and belief in the potential of e-cigarettes to help people quit or reduce smoking. Tobacco shops mainly see their customers as using e-cigarettes to quit smoking whereas vape shops reported their customers using e-cigarettes for more varied reasons. Tobacco shops are much more limited in their marketing than vape shops, which rely heavily on social media and experimentation with other forms of marketing. Conclusions Tobacco shops and vape shops differ in their rationale and approaches to the business of e-cigarettes. Vape shops engage in a wide range of activities that stabilize their financial interest and increase their influence with customers and within the vape community. In order for regulatory policymaking and tobacco control interventions to maximize effectiveness, the actions of vape shops in promoting ENDS use and influencing policy debates must be taken into account.