Convenience store lobbying group advises stores not to sell e-cigs to youths

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The push to prevent the sale of electronic cigarettes to youths has gotten another boost, with the leading convenience store lobbying group coming on board.

The National Association of Convenience Stores’ board of directors is advising members “to adopt, as a best practice, a policy of treating these products as age restricted.”

That means ecigs would be subject to the same federal, state and local age-verification procedures as those applicable to tobacco products.

There is a growing trend of state legislatures and municipalities to ban the sale of ecigs to youths.

For example, the N.C. General Assembly approved in 2013 adding “vapor products,” which would include ecigs, to a law prohibiting sales of tobacco to youth under 18 and requiring age verification for Internet sales. At least 24 states have passed similar laws.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled.

The association’s stance carries significant weight considering convenience stores are the largest retail channel for ecigs at 75 percent of brick-and-mortar sales, or about $540 million last year.

The popularity of ecigs is surging. Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog estimated there was $2 billion in overall ecig revenue last year. She projects up to $10 billion by 2017.

“Convenience stores conduct more face-to-face age-verification checks than anyone in the world,” said Henry Armour, the association’s chief executive and president.

“Given the uncertain status of e-cigarettes, it just makes sense that convenience stores check IDs as part of the more than 4.5 million age-verification checks that we already conduct every day.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in November showed current ecig use rose among middle-school students from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012, and among high-students from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.

The industry, advocacy groups and consumers have been waiting since 2009 for the Food and Drug Administration to decide how it will regulate e-cigs for product safety, minimum legal age for use, flavors, marketing and retail availability.

In September, a group of 40 state attorneys general, including North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, joined the chorus of those wanting the FDA to act.

Cooper said that some ecig marketers “are misleading people, especially minors, into thinking they are a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. We know there needs to be more research into the ingredients and effect of nicotine, and in the meantime we’ll continue to fight to protect our youth.”

Vince Willmore, vice president of communications for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the association’s ecigs policy “is a step forward.”

“But a voluntary policy, which leaves compliance with each individual retailer, is not a substitute for strong FDA and state regulation of e-cigarettes, including prohibitions on sales to minors that apply to all retailers.”

In the meantime, at least three manufacturers have launched TV campaigns for their ecig brands, including Lorillard Inc. nationally for blu eCigs and R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. for Vuse in test markets in Colorado and Utah. It is the first Reynolds TV commercial since 1971.

Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania and a smokefree tobacco advocate, said he is concerned the FDA may try to ban e-cigs in what he considers a “misguided attempt to apply the quit-or-die approach to all tobacco products.” He said e-cigs have the potential to be a reduced-risk alternative to cigarettes.

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