How the vape biz can recover post-Covid

By Willis Jacobson
May 4, 2021

After two years of having its image battered in the public consciousness, and sales slowing as a result, the cannabis vape industry appears headed for a bounceback. If operators want to keep that momentum going, though, they will need to be proactive, warned a prominent industry advocate.

Gregory Conley, president of the New Jersey-based American Vaping Association (AVA), is among those bullish on the future of the cannabis vaping space, but he knows that growth won’t come easy. 

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Vaping products, including those containing THC, faced an image crisis in fall 2019 after an outbreak of a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung condition later attributed to a chemical used in some unregulated and counterfeit products. Just as the legal industry distanced itself from that public relations disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a whole new set of challenges.

In early 2020, medical professionals raised concerns that smoking or vaping cannabis or nicotine might increase the likelihood of severe COVID-related illness. The existence of such a relationship remains unclear, particularly regarding vaping, as research is limited and different sides have used that dearth of data to draw opposing conclusions.

That hasn’t stopped some groups from developing and pushing narratives, Conley said.

“The anti-vaping prohibitionists have shamelessly used COVID as a cover to justify trying to take away these [nicotine vape] products from adult consumers,” said Conley, who noted he is currently tracking some 350 vape-related bills in local and state governments. “They haven’t really targeted cannabis vaping – because that is not their issue, yet – but there has been no shortage of lies and misinformation put out by tobacco control [boards] and state governments about the relationship between COVID-19 and vaping.”

The nicotine-vape industry, in general, faces more scrutiny because, unlike cannabis, it faces multiple layers of federal regulation, Conley pointed out. If and when that heightened attention turns to the cannabis side, he suggested that operators be ready to counter any misinformation by leading the way in producing the facts now. That would involve commissioning fair, bias-free studies and getting reputable research published.

In this challenging climate – coming off back-to-back crises of image, if nothing else – the industry could use some good news.

Cannabis vape pen sales grew at just half the pace of overall cannabis product sales in 2020 across California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, according to data from Headset, a cannabis market intelligence firm. So, although sales continued to grow, the market share for vape pens dropped.

In response to those slowing sales, several hardware and THC-cartridge companies began to publicize and even market their safety measures, including the discontinuation of some additives. Many also used the opportunity to continue stressing to consumers the importance of purchasing regulated, tested products vs. illicit ones.

Several analysts view the recent uptick in cannabis vape sales figures across several markets as proof of a rise in consumer confidence.

Business owners within the space know just how fragile that confidence can be. Although licensed vape brands were largely absolved of culpability in the 2019 lung-illness outbreak, they are still working to make that message widely known. Even with that crisis now in the rear-view, a handful of company representatives contacted for this article declined to comment on it, likely hopeful to simply move past it.

Signs of the industry moving past the COVID sales dip have already emerged.

George Sadler, president of Platinum Vapes, which operates in California, Michigan and Oklahoma, said his company experienced a slight drop in product sales early in the pandemic, but then saw sales creep back up as shelter-at-home orders continued.

Sadler said Platinum wasn’t forced to adjust its business – either due to consumer behaviors or COVID-caused shipment delays – thanks to preparation.

“We were fortunate in predicting shortages and securing our … cartridges in advance so that production was not affected,” he said.

Conley, with the AVA, encouraged cannabis vape operators to similarly work together and prepare now for the public relations attacks that he predicts will inevitably ramp up from prohibitionists. A void in research and data is waiting to be filled, he said, particularly with the federal government unable to fund cannabis-related studies, except in very narrow cases.

With more jurisdictions expected to legalize cannabis in the coming months and years – there are 14 states that currently ban both MED and REC – there is still a lot of untapped opportunity for the overall cannabis vape market. 

It’s now up to the industry to decide how it moves forward.

“Right now, the cannabis industry is largely being treated with kid gloves by state governments,” Conley said. “One day that could change, but in the short term there is great growth potential.”

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