The following is a dispatch from my travels across the United States.
As I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, my mind was unsettled. This is what happened, who I spoke to, and where my mind was in the days leading up to my arrival in D.C.
I was flying down a mountain highway in my home state of Colorado. Dodging the juts of the blind turns, I finally drove into a part of the rural county that has adequate cell phone reception. After adjusting to the straight-away on the now divided highway, I engaged the cruise control and picked up my cell phone.
“It is probably a good time to call,” I thought to myself. Clicking the Bluetooth receiver started dialing the number.
The man I was calling is named Bodie Bodart of Evansville, Indiana.
He answered: “This is TKO.”
“Hi, Bodie! It is Michael McGrady, from Vaping Post. Do you have a free moment?”
Immediately, he said he was unable to chat at the moment due to a dramatic personal matter. He hung up.
I was concerned. What else could go wrong for this man? Though it isn’t my place to judge, the emotional distress was something that I felt through the phone. I was hitting my deadline, but I didn’t want to pry anymore than I already did.
Later in the day, I reached out to Bodie again.
This time, he replied to my questions through Facebook Messenger.
I still could feel the stress in his responses.
“I had yet another emergency last evening,” Bodie said in a note. “So I did not reply to your email.”
“It is fine, Bodie,” I replied. “Share your thoughts whenever you are able.”
“Anytime a politician or a member of the media accuses vapor companies of targeting children without drawing the same distinction the FDA has drawn between tobacco company vapor products and small business open system vapor products, they are talking about me,” he began.
Bodie is chatting with me about the recent bans against flavored e-cigarette products and how a Trump administration push to ban flavors could impact his business.
In light of the vaping epidemic among teens and a rash of severe respiratory ailments and unfortunate deaths linked to the behavior of vaping predominately illicit vape products and a very few regulated cannabis and nicotine products, President Donald Trump took, lightly put, controversial action.
Last week, Trump directed his Department of Health and Human Services and his Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to finalize a compliance policy that governs premarket product approvals. This program is referred to as PMTA applications, which are mandated by the Tobacco Control Act of 2009.
For health, to kill health
Citing concerns for health, the constantly embattled Republican incumbent announced that his administration will ban flavored e-cigarette products through the FDA’s PMTA rulemaking and through a plethora of potential new regulations on nicotine and cannabis vapes the agency has yet to finalize.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat governor of the state of Michigan, made headlines earlier this month by being the first governor to ban flavors through executive action. Since then, a new trend of prohibition regulation against the legal vaping industry has now enveloped jurisdictions all over the United States.
Due to the new trend, the legal vaping industry is now facing an uncertain future. Bodie falls in with the thousands who own small and medium-sized businesses that sell, manufacture and distribute flavored vaping nicotine liquids.
Michigan, New York, now Massachusetts, and hundreds of local governments have banned flavored e-cigarettes or the product category altogether. Trump’s move to issue a nationwide flavor ban just fuels the fire.
I reached out to Bodie because of two very impactful Facebook posts he made on his company’s official page. Bodie, for context, is the owner and operator of TKO Vapor in Evansville and Owensboro, Indiana.
The first Facebook post that drew me to TKO and Bodie was an essay he wrote. With thousands of views and likes, Bodie’s strong-willed testament criticizing politicians, like Trump, and the big tobacco companies that have vapor products truly struck me. He alleges, in the post, that the flavored vaping bans directly support the growth of the market share of large tobacco firms like Altria and British American Tobacco.
He also tells his readers, mainly vaping activists and his customers, that they are being misinformed to believe that vaping is a more harmful threat than combustible cigarettes. Such a claim of misinformation is true; especially when governments in Europe are endorsing vaping for smoking cessation and harm reduction interventions.
The second post that I saw was one of the saddest things to come out of the vaping blogosphere. In this post, he photographed his own staff members breaking down one of his stores.
“This is what a false narrative media hysteria mixed with a regulatory approach to youth vaping that targets the competition of the companies responsible for youth vaping looks like. [This is]…my work-family working off the clock to tear apart their livelihood,” his post laments.
In his own backyard
Literally in the heart of Trump country, Bodie spoke to me out of what seems like a necessity—a sad one at that.
“[This] shit pisses me off,” he said after I asked how he felt about the recent announcements of bans. “They don’t know me. They don’t know my morality.”
After texting, emailing, and talking on the phone with him for a couple of days, I noticed that Bodie mentioned his father quite often. It was prominent. I asked why he kept mentioning his father in our conversations and he elaborated.
“He started smoking cigarettes in his early teen years as did his father before him,” he said, speaking of his father. He then went on to tell me one of the most heartwarming stories I’ve heard in my career as a journalist.
“He began his professional career as a mechanic in a MACK trucks repair shop,” Bodie said. “Over the years he moved up one step at a time to shop foreman to the service manager and eventually he was picked up by the MACK national corporation. He was a regional service manager rep at the time of his passing.”
He adds: “When I was young I would often go to his shop and witness how he dealt with his employees. After work during my young childhood, he would go straight from work to build someone’s porch or to do a renovation on someone’s home. Later in life often when I visited my parents he would take phone calls in his home office. I would hear how he always spoke direct and clear and honest to anyone with whom he had any dealings whatsoever. That same approach informed my decision to turn my professional life to fighting tobacco.”
Bodie purchased TKO from a previous parent company that he was employed with. He was able to purchase the remaining TKO stores in his home state of Indiana.
This man believed in the concept of the TKO shops so much that he cashed out his 401(k), with tax penalties included, to purchase shops in Evansville and Owensboro.
And, as he told me, he built his business on the lessons he learned growing up.
“For every lesson my father taught me about honesty and integrity, my mother taught me a message about love and compassion,” Bodie recalled. “I told you on the phone the other day about how any new employee’s training begins with a conversation about how to view people and treat them with love and dignity.”
“I got that from my mother,” he said. Bodie’s father, a man he revered and continues to do so, has since passed away due to complications with pancreatic cancer. As far as I know, his mother is still alive and well.
“He lived for three and half more years, fighting at every last moment,” he said. “Three different times they opened him up and removed one organ or another. The last surgery completely removed his stomach. A tough-ass old man went on living another six months. His very last words in life were to tell me that he had always loved me.”
His father’s death, he reiterated, pushed him to stand up to flavor bans.
Out of the work ethic that Bodie attributes to his father and the compassion he attributes to his mother, he was able to go into business for himself.
Bodie told me that he was able to grow his business to the point that it was finally seeing noteworthy returns. He even was about to expand into a new storefront, with a lease in hand. Trump’s announcement of a national flavor ban changed his plans virtually overnight.
He said that he feels betrayed. Even though he will do all he can to stay open, his fledgling vape shop chain now faces an uncertain future.
“I am far from claiming that I have always been the man my father raised me to be,” Bodie said. “It came naturally to him. I have had to learn and train myself to try to be as good as him. But one of the lessons again that I learned from him and my mother is to acknowledge and admit my wrongs and ills. All I can do now in my middle-age is to be the best man I can be and run the most honest and upfront business that I possibly can if the United States government would only allow me to continue to do so.”
A few days before talking with Bodie, I reached out to a shop owner based out of Illinois.
My reportage for another publisher, the London and Barcelona-based ECigIntelligence (I’m the outlet’s U.S. correspondent), drew me to Vicki Vasconcellos of Cignot.
Vicki runs a chain of stores in Chicagoland, virtually a second professional home for me, where she services thousands of clients in brick and mortar locations and through an e-commerce outlet.
Being on assignment for a different publisher, I found the need to attempt to “kill two birds with one stone.” Also, when I did reach out, the intent was to get a comment or two about flavor ban proposals in Illinois and at the federal level from the local trade group, the Smoke Free Alternatives Coalition of Illinois (SFACOIL). Vicki is the group’s president.
I asked her what she thought about Trump’s recent calls for a nationwide flavor ban.
“A flavor ban simply doesn’t have an upside,” she wrote in an email. “With 75-80% of the revenue in a vape shop coming from flavored e-liquid, thousands of shops will close, many tens of thousands will lose their job. Smokers turned vapers may simply revert back to smoking as it will be more difficult to get what they need. Many may resort to flavoring their own liquid with readily available flavorings that are not suitable for vaping. And experimenting youth will simply continue to get their supplies from an illicit and unregulated market. It helps no one!”
If we are being honest, that isn’t a far-fetched sentiment. How does banning the vast majority of products in a certain category help efforts to address public health?
Even though my conversation with Vicki wasn’t as in-depth as the one I had days later with Bodie, I was still able to “judge” the resolve of her advocacy work.
She is one of the strongest women I’ve met in the heavily male-dominated vaping industry.
(Side note: She asked me not to share this, but Vicki was interviewed by WCIU News where she strongly defends the importance of vaping for adult smokers looking to switch when asked about Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot’s latest push to ban e-cigarettes.)
Since our conversation, Illinois is now moving to ban flavored e-cigarettes through executive action and eventually legislation.
“I got into this industry because I thought smokers needed to know this alternative was out there,” she wrote to me.
To the nation’s capital
As I finish writing this piece, I am sitting at a bar in the Denver International Airport awaiting a delayed flight to Washington, D.C.
My double shot of Jameson glares back at me as I give it no attention because of my widescreen Lenovo laptop.
I sit next to businessmen, women, vacationers, drinking away their worries before jumping on motion-sickness causing death machines they call airplanes.
Some nosey person asked why I was writing about vaping.
He recycled the arguments I’ve heard dozens of times before:
“What about the children?”
“How can you condone vaping as a public health strategy?”
“What about your morals?”
This man was kind in his rebukes. Very educated; a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He also respected what I had to say. However, I began to tell him about Bodie, Vicki, and thousands like them. I told him that these bans are actually killing people’s livelihoods and potentially sending vapers back to cigarettes. I shared with him the studies that convinced me, like the evidence review from Public Health England endorsing vaping as a legitimate smoking cessation method.
He was surprised and somehow convinced in a matter of a few minutes, and a couple of cocktails.
It made me hopeful.
Reported from Colorado and Washington, D.C.
Updated: The subject, Bodie Bodart, provided more clarifications to what he wrote to me. Also, he told my that the story caused his mom to cry. Not my intent, but the beauty of human nature is on full display here.