After Serena Richter’s dad died from a cigarette smoking-related illness, she made it her mission to help others avoid the same fate. She opened her own vape shop and gave it her father’s name: Rich’s Vapors.

Then in 2016, a 40% tax levied on wholesale e-cigarette products forced her to close the brick and mortar vape store and switch to a new business model.

“That’s supposed to be the American dream. You can do anything you want – as long as it’s not taking money out of the pockets of a bigger entity that the government is backing,” she said.

She and other local store owners saw reports of vaping-related deaths and illnesses as a scare tactic. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report issued this week noted 1,299 lung injuries from vaping and 26 deaths in 21 states, but noted they may be related to street THC products. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

“Most patients report a history of using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing products,” the report said. “The latest national and state findings suggest products containing THC, particularly those obtained off the street or from other informal sources (e.g. friends, family members, illicit dealers), are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the outbreak.”

It further notes “the possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded” because some patients reported using both nicotine and THC products.

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine confirmed there was one death in the state and multiple lung injury cases which were life-threatening.

The department advised no one should use vape products until the risk factor is confirmed.

“The majority of cases have shown THC usage, but not all. Additionally, many of the cases showing THC usage indicate that the products were bought illegally,” said the department’s Public Information Officer Brittany Lauffer. “But, we also know that individuals may vape several different products, which could include THC, nicotine, CBD, products that can be bought at vape shops such as JUULs, etc. That is why trying to determine the source of this outbreak of cases is difficult. However, the investigation is not solely on these products but is looking at all cases and possible exposures. At this time however, we do not know if vaping products are safe so we recommend that individuals do not vape.”

Hannah Deems, manager of Vapor X LLC in Uniontown, said their level of vaping business hasn’t changed, but about 40% of customers bring up the report of deaths and illnesses.

She said she refers them to the CDC report, which specifically notes THC products.

“It’s just the media blowing it out of proportion,” she said.

A customer at the shop, Adam Delorenzo, said he has no concerns about vaping non-THC products.

Beth Adams, the manager of Tobacco World in Uniontown, has used Facebook to share news articles and information to alleviate concerns.

“A lot of the kids that you see in the news who have reported having problems probably didn’t want their mommies and daddies to know they were smoking marijuana, and they buy it off the streets,” she said.

She said she hasn’t seen customers switching back to traditional tobacco products, which are also sold at the store. Adams hasn’t seen a decline in business, either. If anything, she said she has seen an increase. Some people are stocking up, worried that the products will be banned.

“I just want this hype to be gone so people can get back to their normal lives,” she said. “And I hope they don’t ban anything.”

Richter lamented that small “mom and pop” shops are the first to feel the strain when taxes, bans and regulations are imposed. She said she believes the product should have FDA regulations so that customers can receive the best products. But heavy enforcement and taxes like the excise tax enforced in 2016, commonly called the “sin tax,” only hurt small businesses and turns the profits over to “Big Tobacco,” she said. While she acknowledged the deaths and illnesses are “horrible,” she thinks black market marijuana should be held responsible, not the vaping industry.

“In my personal opinion, I just feel like the industry is in the government’s crosshairs. They’re trying to eliminate it, so they use the opportunity to hang something on the industry whether it’s valid or not.”

She saw many vape customers quit smoking cigarettes and mitigate the effects of diseases like COPD. She also witnesses other shop owners losing retirement or going into debt because their businesses could not bear the levied taxes, she said.

“This is the land of opportunity, and every time the little guy finds a way to do good, it’s sent over to ‘Big Pharma’ or ‘Big Tobacco,’ and I think that’s really sad,” she said.

She now sells CBD products through her remodeled business, Rich Vapors CBD. Richter did not want to change the name, because she is still driven to help people with high-quality products through her father’s memory.

“I’m adamantly trying to keep that name alive in his honor,” she said. “He was kind and helped others, and this was my way to keep his name alive, to continue doing a good thing to help others.”

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