By Anastasia E. Lennon
BU News Service
BOSTON — Stacy Poritzky, who owns Vape Daddy’s in Braintree, said she first had the idea to open a vape shop in Massachusetts after visiting a bustling store in Florida in June 2013. With previous experience owning a local retail shop, Poritzky said she saw a business opportunity.
Six months later, she and her business partner David Bershad opened their first of four Vape Daddy’s in Newton. “At that time vaping had just exploded in Florida,” said Poritzky. “I came back to Boston and said to David, ‘We need to open a vape store. This is amazing.’”
Almost six years and four stores later, Poritzky and Bershad stand to lose it all. They, like other local business owners, are rattled and face an uncertain future. At their Braintree store, their sign is flipped to “CLOSED” with an addendum, “Sincerely, Gov. Charlie Baker.” At their Newton location, a poster hangs at the door refusing all deliveries.
“We’re effectively closed. We’re just answering calls,” Bershad said last Wednesday, a day after the ban took effect. “These have been our customers for six years. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people quit smoking [cigarettes].”
There are 6,714 licensed tobacco retailers in Massachusetts, according to a 2018 list from the Department of Revenue. In Quincy, there are 92. It is unclear how many specialize in vaping products versus being general convenience stores.
During a press conference last Thursday, Baker said this ban was not an “easy decision.” According to Statehouse News Service, Baker said his administration considered the economic impact this action might have, as well as the risk of forcing users to return to cigarettes or the black market.
State Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, backed Baker’s decision.
“We understand that there is hardship for businesses. They invested in these businesses but at the same time we’re now up to 61 cases in Massachusetts,” he said on Friday during a phone interview with The Patriot Ledger.
“If this were a head of lettuce that was sold somewhere, they would take the lettuce off the shelf until they know what is going on,” Keenan said. “I don’t think this is any different. Until those answers are known, I think the prudent thing is to remove these products from the shelf.”
The Centers for Disease Control has yet to confirm the official cause of vape-related deaths and illnesses, of which there have been 805 cases and 12 confirmed deaths nationwide.
“We do not yet know the specific cause of these lung injuries. The investigation has not identified any specific e-cigarette or vaping product (devices, liquids, refill pods, and/or cartridges) or substance that is linked to all cases,” the CDC said in a statement.
On Wednesday, inspectors from the Quincy Department of Public Health visited more than 120 establishments that sell vaping products or devices, said Commissioner Ruth Jones. If they had any illegal product, inspectors told them to remove it from display.
Owners also received a copy Baker’s declaration and optional signage to put in their shop windows that would explain the ban to customers.
“We haven’t had anybody that has refused to take it off their shelves, but if they do, we have a cease and desist order from the state that we can deliver to them,” Jones said. Noncompliant retailers can also be fined up to $1,000 for every illegal product sold.
In Weymouth, inspectors hand-delivered notices to its 65 licensed tobacco retailers between Wednesday and Thursday. In addition to providing official letters from the state, the local government also gave a list of resources available for smoking cessation.
Daniel McCormack, director of the Weymouth Health Department, said 85% of retailers had removed banned products by Thursday, and that all have been understanding and willing to comply.
Vape Daddy’s Bershad estimated he has about $60,000 of product that he can no longer sell due to the ban. The only products they can sell are “glass products” like bongs and pipes, which he estimated make up 3 percent of his inventory.
He and Poritzky owned four stores as recently as September but closed their Norwood location after the town banned flavored vape products. Bershad said they sold their license to a traditional smoke shop.
“It’s gonna reverse all the gains made with people getting off of cigarettes,” said Bershad. “I’ve had people who are outraged, people who told me on the phone today they’re gonna go buy cigarettes.”
Ed Davol, 68, of Newton was a customer for six years and visited the store about once a month. Davol smoked cigarettes since high school but saw a chance to try something new once Vape Daddy’s opened.
“I said, this might be [worth] a shot and virtually I haven’t touched a nicotine product since,” said Davol. “I have my wind back. I don’t have a cough or a wheeze.”
Bershad and Poritzky initially kept their jobs in advertising and the corporate world, respectively, but eventually quit to ran the shops full time. Poritzky said the initial investment in the store wasn’t “significant,” but was enough to grow their business.
She estimates they were making close to $2 million annually in sales, but she said the recent spate of lung illnesses (and the coverage that followed) were “devastating” for their business.
“The only reason we stopped opening stores is we understood that we would have to advocate for the vaping industry,” said Poritzky. “We had so many political forces against us, primarily big tobacco and big pharmaceuticals who did not like the fact that we were taking customers away from them.”
Molly Gasnick, 56, of Newton is another Vape Daddy’s customer who used their products to stop smoking cigarettes. She’s been a customer for three years and knows Poritzky personally from when they both owned retail shops in Newton years ago.
“I was delighted to be able to support her and her new business since I was new to vaping,” said Gasnick, who vapes the lowest level of nicotine.
“It’s a little complicated at first with the devices and I needed to be shown how to use it. They were very helpful and let me try different liquids until I got something that I liked,” said Gasnick. “They were wonderful. They would preorder my juice for me and set it aside.”
“It’s just jaw-dropping. It’s out of the blue without consulting anybody or anyone else,” said Donnie Hodge, 53, a Vape Daddy’s customer from Hudson. “I like Dave and Stacy. They walked me through the process about how to get away from cigarettes and onto the vape.”
Bershad and Poritzky said the future isn’t clear. They, along with their employees, are taking an inventory of product and figuring out how to close their three shops with “minimal pain.” After laying off most of their staff, they said they plan to keep only the Framingham location, which has been the most successful and spacious, and wait out the four months.
This story appeared originally in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.