With Tweaks, Hochul Can Protect Our Kids

By Kent Sopris | January 27, 2024

Governor Hochul dedicated much of her State of the State address to combatting retail theft, an issue that our organization- made up of more than 7,500 convenience stores in virtually every corner of New York – fully supports. However, left out of her speech was perhaps the largest challenge that we face – the proliferation of illegal disposable flavored vapes.

Allowing these illegal products to be sold with virtual impunity not only punishes legitimate retailers such as our members, but also empowers criminals that run the black market for these products and fuels what everyone acknowledges is a youth vaping epidemic. Stats recently released by the CDC found that two brands of illegal flavored disposable vapes are the two most popular products among middle and high school aged youth. Elf Bar is in the top spot – used by 1.16 million or 57 percent of underage vapers.

However, with slight tweaks, two initiatives that Governor Hochul did announce in her State of the State could go a long way toward addressing these issues.

On retail theft, the governor proposed establishing a federal, state, and local law enforcement joint operation that, according to the Executive Chamber, will ‘coordinate the response of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. Modeled on the successful intra-state task force on gun trafficking, the group will focus on combating organized retail theft crime. The joint operation will be anchored around the Division of Criminal Justice Service’s Crime Analysis Center Network of 11 centers spread throughout the state.’

That is exactly the approach that is needed to combat these illegal flavored vapes. Most of them – including Elf Bar – are manufactured in China, marketed to kids via the internet and enter the United States through our ports.

Cracking down on this is the purview of the federal government, which has been asleep at the switch when it comes to enforcing the federal ban on these products. Frankly, the state hasn’t done much better, leaving it to a patchwork of some local governments, such as Westchester County and the City of New York to pick up the slack. However, it’s the locals who have the most limited resources and could use the help of its state and federal counterparts. With a coordinated approach and – hopefully – the combined will to enforce the law, they could finally get a real enforcement effort in place.

The second of Governor Hochul’s initiatives seeks to give new powers to state and local authorities ‘to seal or padlock an unlicensed cannabis business’ calling these new measures ‘necessary steps towards shutting down unlawful and unlicensed cannabis operations that jeopardize public safety and the integrity of the State’s legal cannabis market.’

We agree, as – while our members are not in the cannabis business – many of these illegal shops also sell the disposable flavored vapes and untaxed cigarettes. As a matter of fact, in a much-touted series of raids of illegal cannabis shops in New York City last year, out of the 100,000 products seized (worth an estimated $4 million) most of it was illegal tobacco products, authorities later admitted. As 53 percent of all cigarettes sold in the city are untaxed bootlegs, that makes sense and also underscores the need for a steady enforcement strategy.

As it’s true that most illegal cannabis stores also sell illegal vapes and other tobacco products, it’s also true that a lot of disreputable retailers sell illegal vapes and tobacco products, but not cannabis.

This is why the Governor’s cannabis crackdown proposal also needs to be expanded to target them as well.

My members are reputable retailers who take our responsibility to sell legal products to age appropriate buyers very seriously. These Wild West operations function under no such constraints and shouldn’t be allowed to operate with virtual impunity.

Kent Sopris is president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores.