Nationwide, store shelves are filled with vape products, nearly all from China, that haven’t been inspected or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. When frustrated parents see teens with disposable vape pens, the vast majority fall into this category.

Why are they in the stores in the first place? Critics say it’s because the FDA hasn’t done its job authorizing legit vaping products, leaving the unregulated market to meet consumer demand.

Now, some states are trying to fill the void, creating registries of authorized vaping products that can be sold within their borders. However, advocates for local mom-and-pop retailers and national harm reduction public policy say the states’ actions are making matters worse.

Vape registries exist in three states: Alabama, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Florida legislature passed a vape registry bill this yearawaiting the governor’s signature.

Twenty-three companies are listed on Louisiana’s registry of approved products, most big-name, international companies like Juul Labs and R.J. Reynolds.

Meanwhile, according to a letter to the FDA from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, fewer than 50 of the “more than 26 million premarket tobacco product applications (PMTAs)” submitted since 2009 have been authorized.

Many unreviewed applications are from local retailers making custom vape products and flavors for their customers. They’re stuck in the back of the line. And then there’s the public health aspect of the FDA’s footdragging.

“Remarkably, it has also authorized a total of only 16 Modified Risk Tobacco Products (MRTPs) for only four unique products and their accessories,” the senators added.

Their point, one shared by many public health professionals, is that e-cigarettes and vaping provide a lower-risk alternative to traditional cigarette use. Getting smokers to become vapers may not be ideal. Still, it’s a far better outcome for America’s healthcare system than if they continue their tobacco use.

For local vape shop owners in these registry states, however, the debate isn’t about public health policy; it’s about economic survival. Smoke shop owners in Louisiana had to slash inventory under the registry law and with it, revenue.

“Our walls are empty,” Shreveport smoke shop owner Omar Dawud, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  “It’s really affecting me, to the point, right now, I’m thinking of actually moving out of this state.”

Lawmakers say the registries are needed to fight teen vape use.

That’s not the case, responds Gregory Conley with the American Vapor Manufacturers.

“Youth vaping rates are actually declining,” he said. “Rather than crippling small businesses and fueling illicit markets, states should enforce existing laws that prohibit selling nicotine products to anyone under 21.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that of the estimated 6.21 million U.S. middle and high school students who used tobacco last year, only 7.7 percent were e-cigarette users. It was 20 percent in 2019. Going back further, 8.65 percent of middle and high school reported using e-cigarettes in 2014.

Studies also bolster the argument that access to vapes can help reduce smoking rates. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that e-cigarettes combined with counseling could help more people stay away from cigarette smoking. The U.S. government’s Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health reported similar results.

Conley said that state politicians don’t realize what they’re doing.

“They see big American businesses and perhaps a local convenience store chain or two complaining about foreign competition and want to help them. And despite the fact that the major tobacco companies manufacture their vaping products in China, the anti-China angle plays very well with some elected officials,” he said.

Taxpayers could end up with the tab for expensive enforcement actions at the local store level that yield few positive results.

“Given the sheer number of unauthorized products on the market, effective enforcement for this type of program is likely to be extremely expensive,” said Dr. Abigail Friedman at Yale School of Public Health. “Moreover, current state registries allow products that the FDA has not yet finished reviewing as well as those whose applications the FDA has denied if a court stayed that order in response to legal action.

“All in all, state e-cigarette registries strike me as requiring a lot of regulatory effort and funding for relatively little reward,” Friedman said.