Introduction: Vape shops represent prominent, unique retailers, subject to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation in the US. This study assessed compliance of US vape shop retail marketing strategies with new regulations (e.g., required age verification, prohibited free samples) and pre-implementation conditions for other regulations (e.g., health warning labels on all nicotine products, required disclosures of e-liquid contents).
Methods: In May-July 2018, trained research assistants (ages 23-25) conducted mystery shopper (alone, n=174) and point-of-sale audits (in pairs, n=179) on different occasions in 30 randomly-selected vape shops in each of six US metropolitan areas (Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Oklahoma City, San Diego, and Seattle).
Results: 95.0% of shops displayed minimum-age signage; however, mystery shoppers were asked for age verification at 35.6% upon entry and at 23.4% upon purchase. Although 85.5% of shops had some evidence of implementing FDA health warnings, 29.1% had signage indicating prohibited health claims, 16.3% offered free e-liquid samples, 27.4% had signage with cartoon imagery, and 33.3% were within two blocks of schools. All shops sold open-system devices, 64.8% sold closed-system devices, 68.2% sold their own brand of e-liquids, 42.5% sold e-liquids containing cannabidiol (CBD), 83.2% offered price promotions of some kind, and 89.9% had signage for product and price promotions.
Conclusions: Results indicated that most shops complied with some implementation of FDA health warnings and with free sampling bans and minimum-age signage. Other findings indicated concerns related to underage access, health claims, promotional strategies, and CBD product offerings, which call for further FDA and state regulatory/enforcement efforts.
Implications: Current and impending FDA regulation of vaping products presents a critical period for examining regulatory impact on vape shop marketing and point-of-sale practices. Findings from the current study indicate that vape shops are complying with several regulations (e.g., minimum-age signage, FDA health warnings, free sampling bans). However, results also highlight the utility of mystery shoppers in identifying noncompliance (e.g., age verification, health claims, sampling, CBD product offerings). This study provides baseline data for comparison with future surveillance efforts in order to document the impact of full implementation of the FDA regulations on vape shop practices and marketing.
Keywords: alternative tobacco products; e-cigarettes; policy; retail marketing; tobacco control.
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