Popular lawyer forced to close small town vaping store
Since 2018, Murray had been running Lakes Vape and Rec Supply in Brainerd, Minnesota, a small town and tourist destination just hours north of Minneapolis. A staunch consumer advocate and self-proclaimed “optimist,” she knew she would one day have to close her store, even though she could never quite admit it.
“I actually knew it was going to happen,” Murray said. Filtered. “But I was still hoping that something …Something-would change. I hoped the world would come to him.
Sales plummeted when EVALI hit, and she saw many of her customers start smoking again… as misinformation swirled around, hardly anyone came to quit.
Like so many other small players who produce or sell these harm reduction products in the United States, Murray ultimately couldn’t weather the larger storm.
The politicians continued to laser focus on youth vaping rates, despite the fact that they have significantly dropped. The media covered, with alarm, a series of vaping-related illnesses (“EVALI”) in the summer of 2019, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) belatedly blamed on illicit and contaminated THC cartridges. And anti-vaping groups like the Campaign for Tobacco Free Children (CTFK) funded by Michael Bloomberg. made it their mission to ban flavored vaping products in as many municipalities as possible. Generally speaking, adult smokers who opt for safer alternatives, such as vaping, have been overlooked in the public health debate.
Murray’s sales plummeted when EVALI hit (down about 30%) and she saw many of her customers start to smoke again. Much of his clientele were regulars, and as misinformation swirled around, hardly anyone new came to the store to quit smoking.
Then, when COVID peaked, Minnesota didn’t consider vape shops to be “essential” businesses, so Lakes Vape and Rec Supply remained closed for the entire state-imposed lockdown.
On top of that, Murray mainly sold her own e-liquid, and she couldn’t figure out the pre-market tobacco product application (PMTA) process – a costly bureaucratic task that many critics say cedes the market to larger companies with the finances to do substantial science.
TThe miracle she expected never happened. Murray let his license expire. “It was really hard to close,” she said.
The trip had been accidental and rewarding. In 2014, her then 29-year-old son suffered a heart attack after smoking two packs a day for over 10 years. Eventually he tried vaping and within a week, Murray said, he had quit smoking. He sold some of his possessions – his television, stereo, guns – and found $ 5,000 to open a vaping store in Brainerd. Its location in a low-income neighborhood meant it could offer harm reduction alternatives to the type of community that typically has a high rate of smoking.
An e-liquid maker taught him how to make e-liquids, and soon he mixed his up at the back of the store. Murray, who had smoked since the age of 10, helped him.
Murray was coming out of the store to smoke, but her son hated the smell so much that he told her she couldn’t do it while she was there. Instead, she started vaping at the store, and gradually she vaped more and more. Nicotine, she explained, calms her depression and helps her focus, even with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I had failed to quit so many times that I quit trying to quit,” Murray said. “I firmly believed that this would never happen.” About four months later, she said, she couldn’t remember the last time she smoked a cigarette. “It was a happy accident.”
By October 2018, she had taken over the store and was working there almost every day, in addition to a full-time, night-time job in a group home. Around this time, Murray moved downtown as the local government had tried to revitalize and plunged headfirst into consumer advocacy. Now she participates in the Safer Nicotine Wiki, an information center on vaping and tobacco harm reduction.
“I have had other family members and many friends with the same story,” Murray said. “It was never about income. It’s always about helping people. I just wanted to make sure another mom didn’t have an hour’s drive to the hospital, wondering if her son was dead or alive. It was a horrible experience. “
“We have always supported low-income people, people with disabilities and the elderly. “
In retrospect, Murray thought maybe moving his brick and mortar location had been a mistake. Yet she always maintained the the ethics of his small business; his model was to help people quit smoking and then, by decreasing the nicotine content over time, to quit vaping as well. But she was reluctant to change, she admitted; it delayed the introduction of pod-based vaping products and has never sold disposables.
“We have always supported low-income people, people with disabilities and the elderly,” she said.. “We’ve always been the dive bar type vape shop for workers.”
His dream, however, was short-lived.
“The vaping community is what got me through this,” said Murray, whose advocacy for tobacco harm reduction will continue. “The amount of support and sadness shared following the closure of my store has been incredible. I wouldn’t have done it without them.
Photograph by Skip Murray Courtesy of Murray