Overnight, it seemed, a golden age of vaping swept across America. Vape shops sprang up in strip malls. New technology arrived almost daily -- better batteries, better coils, better juices. Better everything. "That case changed the precedent," remembered Daniel Walsh, the co-founder and CEO of Purebacco, a 30-employee Michigan company that produces e-liquids. "Literally a month later, we went to market."
In 2014, the FDA tried a different tack. It announced its intent to classify vapor products (which at this point included all sorts of devices, not just cigalikes) as "electronic nicotine delivery systems" -- a move that would subject them to the same regulations that govern combustible cigarettes. This meant no more unregulated manufacturing or marketing, no more sales without age verification, no more free giveaways.
If all that sounds good in theory, that's because it is. People on both sides of the debate tend to agree that regulation is needed. They disagree, however, on just how sweeping the regulation should be. For instance, the 2014 proposal included price estimates just for applying to get a single vapor product approved, and it is high. The FDA said around $335,000; an independent research firm quoted in the Wall Street Journal put it at $2 million to $10 million. Either way, it's more than most manufacturers have lying around... except for Big Tobacco. According to Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, these rules would amount to "a prohibition to 99.99% of the market."
While the FDA deliberated the regulations, the US market boomed, teen vaping rates skyrocketed, and doctors around the world argued over vaping's relative health benefits. Then the agency handed down its long-awaited decision. It's 499 pages long, but the sentence everyone has been waiting for is towards the front: "Products that meet the statutory definition of 'tobacco products' include [...] e-cigarettes, e-hookah, e-cigars, vape pens, advanced refillable personal vaporizers, and electronic pipes."
A couple weeks before the FDA made its announcement, I called Walsh. He's a trip: a scientist with blond dreadlocks down to his knees, a background in artificial intelligence, and formal training in shamanism. They call him the "high priest of vaping," and his prophecy was bleak. If the regulations arrived as expected, he predicted, they'd be followed by "a period of petulant tribalism that will be absolutely chaotic."
That period is now upon us.