Retail Perspective: Losing Flavored Tobacco Sales

VERC’s experience with channel-specific flavor bans

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

Verc convenience store checkout

The checkout and backbar at a VERC convenience store

DUXBURY, Mass. -- One of the most troubling regulatory trends of the past year has been cities and local governments banning certain tobacco products for specific retail channels. Minneapolis kicked things off, prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products and electronic cigarettes for convenience, drug and grocery channels, but allowing flavors for adults-only outlets such as tobacco and vape shops. Since then, countless others have followed suit.

Anna Bettencourt, a category specialist for VERC Enterprises, Duxbury, Mass., already has lost the ability to sell flavored products at a number of VERC's locations. In an exclusive interview with Tobacco E-News, Bettencourt shared her perspective on these regulations and how it has affected VERC’s business.

Q: What has been your experience with flavored tobacco bans?
A: In Massachusetts we have many towns doing flavor bans, but still allowing vape shops to sell them. I have a store in Massachusetts where the town will go with a flavor restriction as of July 1. We’ve operated in that town for 18 years and we haven’t had an issue.

Q: What is your response to this kind of channel-specific ban?
A: This is a legal product. It’s unfair to take it away from stores that have operated for years and years without any issues. Not to pick on vape shops, but they’re newer to the market. They may or may not have a success rate as far as compliance. I know my stores get checked (by the Food and Drug Administration). I have a proven track record, but they’re taking product away from my customers of legal age. It bothers me. You’re essentially choosing winners and losers in the tobacco business. 

Q: What effect has losing flavored tobacco sales had on your business?
A: You do see a loss of business. We’ve had to say to many customers “we can’t sell this product.” It turns that customer away from my store. It’s more than just a loss of flavored tobacco sales. We have a Dunkin Donuts without a drive-thru. Maybe that customer will go to the one down the road with a drive-thru now that they don’t need to go into my store.

Q: What other negative effects have these kinds of flavor bans had?
A: We have a very high excise tax in Massachusetts, so for years people have obtained it from less-than-legal channels and sell products at a discounted price. Now you’re seeing that with flavored tobacco. I have stores in the city of Boston, (which also has banned flavors), and have checked out the competitors that aren’t chains. They’re selling flavored products. It’s hidden, but you know people are going in there to get flavored products, while I’m playing by the rules and losing business.