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Montana Vape Chain Doubles Down on Flavoring During Temporary State Ban

Vaping device
Vaping device

One Montana vape store chain says it will continue providing its customers with the flavors they want despite the state’s temporary ban on the sale of flavored vaping products.

Owners of Hamilton-based Freedom Vapes announced last week they plan to sell do-it-yourself ‘kits’ enabling customers to create their own flavored vape juice. That announcement from Ron and Deanna Marshall came one day after the start of a four-month statewide ban on all flavored e-liquids.

This past weekend, the Marshalls ever-so-slightly walked back the phrasing of their promotion: Deanna Marshall says they misused the word ‘kit’.

"It’s not actually a kit. It’s the separate components that people can put together. There is a whole subculture of people who vape that do that already or have been doing it forever.”

E-liquid is typically made up of a handful of components: a base of propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, nicotine and flavoring. That flavoring draws the ire of critics who blame it for the spiking popularity of vaping products among teenagers. But vape retailers say those flavored juices are the bread and butter of their revenue stream; by far the preferred choice of their adult customers trying to kick the cigarette habit.

The Marshalls note they are legally allowed to sell two specific flavored vape products under the state’s temporary ban: Tobacco and marijuana flavored vape juice. Freedom Vapes doesn’t sell sell the pot-flavored products, but does offer the tobacco flavored juice.

Ron Marshall describes it a sales dud.

“They want to get away from the tobacco flavor. If you’re trying to get off cigarettes, that’s the last thing you want.”

Freedom Vapes was part of an industry group that unsuccessfully sued the Bullock administration to stop the ban that is currently set to last into April. The Marshalls own vape shops in Hamilton, Bozeman and Belgrade.

Ron Marshall asserts prohibition never works, but only increases dangerous black-market activity “You can ban the flavors all you want" he says, "but people are going to try to get the flavor that they’re used to, added in the wrong quantities, wrong product and then you’re really going to have people get in trouble.”

The Marshalls say they’re selling only top-quality pharmaceutical grade base ingredients and culinary-grade flavorings.

“Any flavor you want: strawberry, peach, anything you could think of – any fruity type flavor or deserty-type flavor“ Marshall says.

"The way the ban is written is that we are not allowed to sell flavored e-liquids and we’re not selling flavored e-liquids. We’re selling unflavored e-liquids and culinary flavorings for any use you may want to use it for.”

A recent Freedom Vapes Facebook post says the store will also soon stock products unrelated to vaping, including candy-making supplies, soda streams and cookbooks that demonstrate how to properly use the safe flavorings they offer.

The Marshalls do not provide instructions on how to make vape juice when they sell the ingredients. They say those instructions are easily found online. They are correct, but precise calculations are required to get it right. Potential risks include possible product contamination and high doses of liquid nicotine.

When asked if they’re skirting Montana’s new ban, Deanna Marshall responded it boils down to a safety issue. 

“We had a customer come in to tell us he needed propylene glycol, but couldn’t find it on any of the shelves around town, so he was just going to go down to the parts store and buy non-toxic antifreeze because it’s propylene glycol-based. Then we would just go get his flavors from K-Mart. That’s scary. That’s frightening to us. At least here, I can sell them the components to do the same thing they would be doing but do it with safe ingredients.”

Montana’s health department says it’s working with local public health officials to enforce the new emergency rule to ensure all businesses are in compliance. MTPR asked the department whether shops like Freedom Vapes could sell the raw ingredients for DIY flavored vape fluid. The agency issued a statement to Montana Public Radio Monday saying  “We appreciate all those who are in compliance with the recent court order. For those who are not in compliance, we will address those issues through the legal process.”

The Marshalls say no public health officials on either the local or state level have approached them about their revised product lines. 

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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