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A wall of cigarettes at District Vape owner Sean Robinson says customers have left behind.

When Sean Robinson talks about why he opened his vape shop on H Street NE last November, he doesn’t cite the promised streetcar or the luxury buildings rising on both ends of the corridor.

“There’s one thing around H Street that you won’t find in a lot of other places in D.C., and it’s poor people,” he says. “Poor people deserve a chance not to smoke, too.”

Robinson’s shop, District Vape, sells vape devices and “e-juice,” a flavored liquid used in vaporizers that can be produced with or without nicotine. The 48-year-old Arlington resident began vaping as a way to quit smoking, a cessation technique that he wants others to adopt.

“It’s important to me that they quit smoking. It’s the mission.”

But Robinson and other vape shop owners in D.C. say an all-but-approved tax increase on their products will force them out of business. Members of the D.C. Council, on the other hand, say the matter is a public health issue, plain and simple.

“They’re going to put us out of business,” Robinson says, “and they don’t care.”

The Vapor Product Amendment Act of 2015, a provision in the fiscal year 2016 budget support act, adds e-cigarettes and “similar vapor products containing nicotine” to the list of “other tobacco products.” Currently, vape products are subject to the 5.75 percent sales tax, while “the rate of tax applicable to wholesale sales of other tobacco products is 70 percent,” according to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. The wholesale tax would apply to both the liquid that becomes vapor and the vape devices themselves, according to John Paul Brandt, legislative counsel for the Council’s Committee on Health and Human Services.

“There’s no way that we would be able to justify those prices for our customers,” says Erik Miller, who owns D.C. Vape Joint in Adams Morgan. “There’s no way they would buy the same bottle of juice that they get online or in Maryland or Virginia for a few bucks cheaper. We’re already a little bit more expensive, just doing business in D.C. It’s just more expensive. But to double our prices for the same exact product, no.”

Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who heads the Committee on Health and Human Services, says she doesn’t know “why the term vaping is being used instead of smoking” in this debate. Studies in recent years have questioned the safety of e-cigarettes and vape devices, including one from the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year that said e-cigarettes produce formaldehyde when a device is turned to a high voltage. (Vaping proponents say the study was flawed.)

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to set regulations for vape products beyond those used for “therapeutic purposes.” While the FDA is considering a proposed rule that would put e-cigarette regulation under its purview, the advice currently offered on its site emphasizes how much is still unknown: “E-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so consumers currently don’t know the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or whether there are any benefits associated with using these products.”

Alexander also points to vape products’ lack of official designation as a smoking cessation product, a point of contention that was on display at May 8 Council hearing.

At that budget oversight hearing, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, if vapor products are healthier than cigarettes.

“They are far healthier,” Conley began before Mendelson interjected, “No, no, no, that’s not what I’m asking. I don’t want a comparison.”

“Well sir,” Conley continued, “if you look at nicotine gum that people have been using for decades—President Obama, for example, used to chew it, and compared to the one- or two- pack a day habit he used to have, I would venture to say that long-term, yes, for a smoker that is unable or unwilling to quit, that is the healthy option.”

But for Alexander, without FDA regulations in place, treating vape products like cigarettes makes sense. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents H Street NE, agrees.

“I’m going to put the public health issue first,” he says. “It’s a reality that we are treating these products the same way we treat nicotine products. That’s where the tax is levied, and that’s where the approach comes from.”

Barring a major change in heart, the D.C. Council will approve the tax on June 30 when the members take a second vote on the budget; the change would go into effect in October.

Robinson says he’d be sad to close his business and lay off his four employees, but he’s not going to risk his life savings “because of the government.”

“The purpose of the rewriting of the words… is to generate revenue, but in essence it’s going to put three stores out of business,” he says. According to a committee report, the amendment is expected to raise $380,000 in fiscal year 2016.

“Our mission is to get people off cigarettes, [and the Council is] not helping,” Robinson says. “Maybe they don’t buy into that—and that’s fair, they don’t need to—but 70 percent is an outrageous amount.”

Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes