Montgomery County residents testify about proposed legislation to ban the sale of vape products within a half-mile of schools. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

County vape shop owners clashed with the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday night, saying proposed legislation to ban their businesses near schools “demonizes” entrepreneurs whose aim is to “save lives.”

In September, the County Council proposed legislation that would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes, also called “vapes,” within a half-mile of middle and high schools, and prohibit the sale of flavored vaping products.

The legislation, council members have said, aims to prevent youth from using e-cigarettes as national reports of vaping-related lung illnesses climb.

A handful of vape shop owners, however, said the council isn’t focusing on the right businesses.

The problem, they said, is larger retailers, like convenience stores and gas stations.

“We don’t feel the distance (from schools) and flavor has anything to do with the problem,” said Rodrigo Santos, co-owner of Bethesda Vapor Company and Downtown Vapor Company in Silver Spring. “We’re real people. We were raised in your county, we went to schools in your county, we work in your county and pay taxes in your county. … We’re willing to help, educate and fight this fight with you.”


Last school year, five Montgomery County students lost consciousness and required a drug antidote after vaping during school.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports an “alarming increase” in vaping among high school students from 2017 to 2018. More than 3 million youths were using e-cigarettes in 2018 – a 78 percent increase from the prior year.

Adults use vaping products to wean themselves off cigarette use, according to Jesse Flores, another representative of Bethesda Vapor and Downtown Vapor.


Vape shops sell a specific device that allows users to control how much nicotine is released. Devices sold at other stores, like gas stations, come loaded with as much nicotine as several packs of cigarettes. Products sold on the “black market” are sometimes laced with drugs, Flores said.

Flavors, often fruity, help cigarette users “remove the reminders of nicotine flavors,” and more effectively stop smoking, Flores said.

“We feel further punishing reputable businesses like ours will only lead to a rise in those black market sales and … poor decisions and unfavorable results,” he said.


There are 22 vape shops in Montgomery County and 19 fall within the boundary that would restrict the sale of their products.

Eric Fristchler, owner of Vapor Worldwide in Gaithersburg, said the council’s legislation jeopardizes the health of thousands of Montgomery County residents who quit smoking as a result of his business.

He said vape shops are being “demonized” for helping people, despite turning away children who come to their stores to buy nicotine products.


“I’ve been serving the community for six years, built a business on saving lives and eliminating big tobacco,” Fristchler said. “… Come out to our shop, meet your constituents — the adult vapers who are saving their lives from the grips of tobacco. That is what we do.”

John O’Hara, president of the Maryland Group Against Smokers’ Pollution disagreed, and said vaping companies’ marketing strategies mimic those of large tobacco companies. Vaping companies say their products are safe and market directly to youth, he said.

“Many adults and young people are dying from vaping,” O’Hara said. “… The physical health of your constituents is far more important than the financial health of the tobacco and vaping industry.”


Adam Zimmerman, a Rockville resident, urged the County Council to strengthen the proposed legislation to ban vape shops within 1 mile of all county schools.

County Executive Marc Elrich in September said he, too, would support the legislation if it were expanded to include a 1-mile radius. At a press conference, Elrich said the county government must weigh public health above the welfare of some businesses.

“If it’s something that only makes a business successful at the cost of public health, it is not the kind of thing people should be in business doing,” Elrich said.


In recent months, e-cigarette use and vaping have gotten national attention as dozens of people nationally have fallen ill with lung conditions health officials believe are linked to vaping.

Montgomery County resident Luel Hayes told the council on Tuesday he became ill from inhaling second-hand vape smoke in a local Starbucks in 2014.

Hayes spent several days in the hospital, he said, and was told oils in vaping devices “sit on your lungs and start to grow bacteria, then infiltrate the rest of your body.”


“Why is it people wait until people die to do something?” Hayes asked. “People have died.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at