Watch: The War on Vaping Closes a Shop in East Harlem

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    Spike Babaian is the Swiss Army Knife of vaping. She is a fierce advocate for tobacco harm reduction, a vape business owner who has helped hundreds if not thousands of smokers to quit, a published researcher, an educator and an activist against flavor bans.

    She’s also a former smoker. Over a decade ago, Babaian switched to vaping and it transformed her life. One immediate benefit was an improvement in her health. She now rarely needs to use her asthma inhaler.

    Founding Vape NY with her partner was a way for Babaian to help other smokers quit. She ended up opening four shops in total, one in Brooklyn and three in Manhattan. For years, business was good.

    At her store in East Harlem, a predominantly low-income Latinx and Black neighborhood, she helped people with some of the highest rates of smoking switch.

    “We quit smoking and we thought everyone should have that chance, and the government took it away.”  

    “Even though there isn’t a lot of money in East Harlem, there are a lot of smokers,” Babaian told me when I interviewed her for the short Filter film above. “There are people who need the product we sell. Even though we won’t make a huge amount of money, we can help smokers there quit.”

    She also noticed that there were several recovery homes within blocks of the store. Knowing that people who use drugs also smoke at high rates, she reached out to participants in these programs and offered them vapes at a discount.

    But then the war on vaping caught up with Babaian’s mission to convert adult smokers to vaping. When New York passed a ban on selling flavored vapes in 2020, her business was hit hard. The EVALI panic and COVID-19 also hurt sales. One by one, she had to close most of her stores. Around the country, countless other small vape shops have met the same fate.

    This month, Babaian is closing her shop in East Harlem. She is both angry and resigned.

    “We opened these stores because we wanted people to have more time with their grandchildren, because we wanted people to breathe easier, because we wanted people to not spend their lives getting chemo and radiation for lung cancer,” she said. “We quit smoking and we thought everyone should have that chance, and the government took it away.”  

     

    • Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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