By Leigh Oates and Matt Rowland
Photos by Leigh Oates
The much anticipated Vape Expo NJ, held the weekend of July 17-19, was more eventful than anyone could have anticipated, and not because of the vendor selection, hot technology and interesting panels, although there was a fair amount of those, as well. Vendors and vaping enthusiasts flocked to the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center to find that Vape Expo NJ 2015 will forever be remembered as the expo that banned vaping. Unfortunately, the Division of Health and Human Services was lurking in the background, waiting to wield their mighty sword of political power. Advocacy became an important theme, as event organizers struggled with New Jersey Senator Joe Vitale and the Edison Health Department to even be allowed to finish the event.
Trouble began brewing as early as Friday afternoon, the first day of the event. Friday was billed as the business-to-business portion of the marketing expo. Nearly 250 vendors set up their display booths, shook hands and tested each other’s vaping paraphernalia and e-liquid blends. As one might expect from a vaping expo, the atmosphere inside the indoor arena turned thick with vaping clouds within a couple of hours.
Almost immediately, Jay Elliot from the Division of Health and Human Services landed on the doorstep of coordinators Don Miller and Andy Balogh. According to Elliot, his office was already receiving a massive number of complaints from within the local community. Besides the thick cloud of smoke, or vapor in this case, hanging over the auditorium, local citizens were reportedly witnessing babies in attendance, pregnant women and underage teenagers. Whether this happens to be true, Elliot and the health department were told to make some sort of change.
Miller and Balogh explained to Elliot that the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center had already agreed to host the Vape Expo NJ event, knowing that vaping would be conducted indoors. Additionally, Vape Expo NJ was billed as a private event. It was not open to the public because there was a $10 entrance fee at the door. Vendors paid $25. No one could enter without already knowing what to expect inside the auditorium – namely, a dense haze of vaping blends made from taste-testers and cloud-chasers.
However, since the health department had received a slew of complaints, event organizers had to enforce the law. Balogh spoke about the vape expo being structured as a private club, with attendees buying a membership to a club, which he claimed exempted them from the Clean Indoor Air Act. Allegedly, Senator Vitale had visited the expo and saw vaping in violation of the state law. The senator argued that there are no legal exemptions to the Clean Indoor Air Act, with the exception of certain cigar bars in existence before 2004.
Elliot wasn’t buying it. The health department wanted to see all Saturday and Sunday vaping take place in an outdoor, open-air facility, which the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center essentially provides at no additional cost. “No Vaping” signs were to be clearly displayed throughout the indoor auditorium, and all vendors were to be informed of possible fines and legal citations should they choose to ignore the warnings.
Elliot’s demands seemed to throw Miller and Balogh off guard. A video posted by Phil Busardo on his website TasteYourJuice.com showed the two coordinators standing in front of the crowd of vendors and attendees, explaining the options. According to the video, Miller and Balogh told their audience of vaping fanatics that everyone must sign an agreement, stating they are aware that Vape Expo NJ is a vaping event and are essentially “entering at their own risk.” All invited guests, vendors and their employees were required to sign the document.
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Thankfully, most people in the auditorium seemed to take the new rules in stride. Business seemed to move forward, although with a slightly more hushed tone. Vendors changed their sample liquids to zero nicotine and continued on their merry way. That is, until more than a few of the small business owners got a tap on the shoulder by Elliot and health department representatives.
According to Elliot, Miller and Balogh were dead wrong. Vaping of any kind inside the auditorium was strictly prohibited. Regular vaping, chain vaping, vaping with 12 mg of nicotine or vaping of zero-nic blends was completely against the law. “This is your first and final warning,” many vendors were immediately told.
As early as Friday night, the news of the “Non-Vaping Vape Expo” had spread like wildfire across the Internet and social media. Attendance dropped almost immediately. Many vendors were extremely upset with plummeting sales due to low attendance, fines and controversy. Event sponsor Bad Drip packed up Saturday and did not return for Sunday activities. Some remained positive, however. Steven Berry, owner of Bang Bang Vapor and associate of Dotcom Vapor, said, “I think it’s going really well. I think the biggest thing to talk about is the camaraderie between the booths.” He was excited to attend his first big vape expo and had “no concerns about the vaping ban.” He said that they had “talked to the fire marshall personally, and he told us it would be OK to try juices.”
“Regular vaping,” like taste testing a vendor’s sample brand, was acceptable, while “chain vaping” was not. “Chain vaping” took place in the open-air pavilion adjacent to the auditorium. “Regular vaping” could only take place indoors, as long as the e-liquids contained zero nicotine. A warning to future attendees was posted on the Vape Expo NJ website and Facebook page.
Sometime early Saturday morning, a message was posted on the event Facebook wall from event organizer Andy Balogh that said the health department had banned vaping inside the event center. An outside pavilion would be set up for vapers to casually vape, but according to New Jersey state law, vaping was banned indoors.
There was confusion in the morning, as vendors still appeared to be vaping without incident. VAPE spoke with Evan McMahon of Liberation Vape and Ryan Bunting of Good Ohm Boys and NJVRC to get their perspectives on the fallout. McMahon and Bunting both stressed the importance of action and following up with legislators to prevent similar problems in other areas. McMahon, who practically lived at the Indiana state house during the hearing of HB1432, knows that sympathizing with advocacy will only get vapers so far. Action must be taken to ensure that legislators hear the desires of the people.
Bunting said, “There is a strong vape community in New Jersey, but you can’t just get into the legislator’s ear once and then go away … you have to be a constant presence.”
He stressed the importance of awareness, financial support and political action. McMahon said, “I want people to know that you are a heartbeat away from never being able to vape again. There are powerful, well connected, well funded people that want your customers and your friends to die because they would rather them smoke cigarettes than vape. I’m not the rosy sunshine person to tell you that everything is going to work out. I’m the one to tell you that that it is probably going to end up really crappy, and you better get off your ass and get involved.”
A poorly attended advocacy panel, featuring McMahon, Bunting, David Goerlitz (formerly the Winston Man), Joe Barnett and Robin Barsky of The Vaping Militia, and Chris Hughes of SFATA all covered topics about protecting the industry. Despite only having 12 people in attendance, the panelists offered an urgent call to action, reminding attendees that 3 percent of vapers cannot do 100 percent of the work when it comes to protecting the industry from unfair taxation, vaping bans and regulation. The panelists’ urge for members of the vaping community to be present, to be active and to get excited about advocacy may have gone unheeded during the Friday evening panel, but the events to come would serve as an important reminder about the importance of advocacy.
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VAPE met with Miller Friday night to gather his input on the event. Miller stressed that, in his opinion, the most important part of the expo was the advocacy panel. The main reason for the event, he claimed, was public awareness. A bright spot of the evening took place via an acoustic set from Scott Stapp of Creed. The evening concert drew many out, however one might assume that these concertgoers may have been the source of complaints about illegal indoor vaping.
Vape Expo NJ’s indoor vaping incident was the first episode in a chain reaction of missteps that eventually led to an unsolicited visit by a United States senator, more than $50,000 in fines and an early closure on Sunday afternoon. It resulted in an overwhelming amount of confusion, where government officials issued more than 66 citations to individual vendors for ignoring New Jersey’s Smoke-Free Air Act Initiative. Individual fines ranged from $250 to $750, and the health department also issued another 27 summons to the organizers of Vape Expo NJ, Don Miller and Andy Balogh.
More oddities occurred on Saturday afternoon. A “cannabis car” showed up in the middle of the auditorium, some sort of marketing gimmick for one of the vendors. And, another vendor brought in a bunch of scantily clad pole dancers.
Exhibitors and attendees were told that casual vaping would be allowed outside only, but sampling of 0 mg juices would be allowed inside the expo center. All day Saturday, there was vaping, then there wasn’t, then you could sample the flavors at the table, then you couldn’t, and then you could. Rumors rippled through the crowd and no one was sure what could be done. It was a back and forth that culminated in tickets being written to vendors and the public for violating the vaping ban. Exhibitors and attendees are told that vaping is at your own risk. It was not a police action, but people vaping indoors were subject to fines, with fines ranging from $250 to $750. This reporter saw at least one vendor warned to stop offering samples by health
After the initial shock of Saturday afternoon wore off, many of the vendors began to share in Berry’s enthusiasm. The events of Saturday evening and Sunday flowed smoothly, although the Miss Vape Expo New Jersey pageant was quietly sidelined. However, the vape trick competitions, free giveaways and the dance contest still went on as planned. In some cases, vendors were seen offering free samples without threats of legal action.
By Sunday at 4 p.m., Vape Expo NJ has run its course. Miller and Balogh posted a notice that the event would be closing early at 7 p.m. due to having “reached capacity.” VAPE reached out to Balogh for comment regarding final attendance numbers and comments, but he declined to issue an official statement on the advice of his legal team. The only thing that he would say was: “We shall see in the upcoming weeks what the end result is.”
The final outcome for Vape Expo NJ still is unclear. However, there are lessons to be learned by the events in New Jersey. First and foremost, a small percentage of the vaping community cannot be responsible for all of the work it takes when it comes to protecting the industry from unfair taxation and regulation. Second, how we present ourselves is critical to gaining both public and political acceptance. We don’t want to become our own worst enemy by “thumbing our noses” at the legal system. We must promote vaping advocacy while remaining within the confines of the law. Take action today by joining CASAA and the Vaping Militia, and by remaining informed and aware on proposed vaping legislation around you. And when it comes time to defend your right to vape, go to the state house, write that letter and do your part to protect vaping, because without the support of all the vapers, we are susceptible to being extinguished.