Kodiak’s only vape shop will close this week. Steam Trunk owner Ryan Kitka says it’s because nationwide media attention has given vaping a bad reputation.

As of Nov. 20, 2,290 cases of lung illness associated with the use of e-cigarettes or vaping products have been reported to the Center for Disease Control, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Illnesses have been reported in 49 states — every state except Alaska. 

According to Tanya Kitka, Ryan’s wife, articles about vaping fail to mention that almost all illnesses can be traced back to the black market. 

The Kitkas said that despite the difference between “legal” and “black-market” products, the negative press surrounding vaping has led to a sharp decline in sales in the Kodiak store. 

During the shop’s prime, Ryan had between 600 and 700 customers, amounting to around a tenth of Kodiak’s residents. But in recent months, sales dropped off “at least 50%.”

Tanya said that she and her husband don’t vape, but they believe people should have the alternative available to them. “Personally, I like walking through a cloud of somebody vaping cherry cheesecake as opposed to cigarette smoke,” she said. 

Steam Trunk, Kodiak’s first and only vape shop, was opened in 2016. Ryan bought the business in 2017, and has been running it ever since.

Ryan and Tanya said vaping products sold at Steam Trunk sometimes helped people reduce their dependence on nicotine. By demonizing the vaping industry, they worry that more Kodiak residents will turn to cigarettes, which often have a higher nicotine content. 

“I would love to keep the shop open as an alternative, just to keep people from going and buying a pack of Marlboros,” Ryan said.

Steam Trunk sold vaping products with limited or no nicotine, and did not carry Juul products and other products with high nicotine levels. 

“I feel like I have a moral obligation,” Ryan said, explaining his decision not to sell high-nicotine vaping products. He said that if he had sold those products, he would make more money and be able to stay in business.

“A lot of Ryan’s customers have come in here to quit or get away from cigarettes,” Tanya said. “I see the benefit as it being an alternative.”

While the Kitkas see the benefit of vaping as an alternative to smoking, some Kodiak residents are concerned about the increasing presence of vaping in schools. 

State law makes it illegal for minors to be in possession of tobacco. The law was amended in November 2018 to include e-cigarettes, and the amendment went into effect Jan. 1. However, Kodiak Island Borough School District Superintendent Larry LeDoux said vaping is still a major concern for students in the district schools.

LeDoux said vaping materials are periodically found in Kodiak schools. The district adopted a “zero tolerance policy” — the materials are confiscated and the students are adjudicated. 

Closing Kodiak’s only vape shop is “good news,” LeDoux said. If vaping products are harder to access, local youth are less likely to develop an unhealthy addiction. But that’s only part of the solution, he said.

The other part is education. When kids and parents learn about the negative health effects of vaping, use will decrease, he said. 

Ryan said he checks the IDs of all of his customers and never sells to minors. But unlike cigarettes, vaping products are sold online, meaning that underage buyers can order them from online vendors as long as they check a box saying they are above the age of 19.

Tanya and Ryan said they would prefer for vaping products to be regulated the way cigarettes are. As parents, they recognize the danger of children using vaping products.

According to Cheley Grigsby, program manager of Alaska’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, 16% of Alaska youth are regular users of vaping products, 

“Data show that e-cigarettes have the potential to addict youth to nicotine and increase their uptake of tobacco products,” Grigsby said. “Because adolescent brains are still developing and addiction is a form of learning, adolescents can develop addictions more easily than adults.” 

Recently, flavor bans have been introduced as a solution to dissuade children from vaping. But the Kitkas believe this isn’t an adequate solution.

“Can you imagine if they went into the liquor industry and said ‘you can’t sell anything flavored?’” Tanya said. 

While the Kitkas insist that the products sold at Steam Punk have helped regular smokers quit their habit, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved e-cigarettes as a method to help people quit tobacco. 

“Some research indicates that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation, however they are not effective at eliminating nicotine dependence,” Grigsby said. 

Saturday will be Steam Punk’s last day of business.

 

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