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Co-owner of Vape Jungle Charles “Chuck” Gott stands in front of a display of e-liquids and more at his Prince Frederick store. Gott and his wife Candice also own stores in Waldorf and Lexington Park.

Chuck and Candice Gott are advocating for vaping the industry.

“We both use it to quit cigarettes,” Candice Gott said.

Chuck, 36, said he was a pretty heavy smoker. He started at 15 and eventually smoked up to a pack and a half a day on weekdays and two full packs a day on weekends.

“Once my kids started asking me when they can start smoking cigarettes or ‘Ooh, you smell like cigarettes’ — it started to weigh heavy on me,” Chuck said.

A friend from New York exposed Chuck to vaping, and he said he has been doing it ever since.

“From there it was just gradual [then] constant — until basically, I didn’t use cigarettes anymore,” Chuck said of his ability to work his nicotine levels down through vaping.

“And I have been able to completely quit,” Candice said, noting she smoked a pack a day. In 2014, the couple decided to open their first vaping shop in Waldorf and named it Vape Jungle.

In June of the following year, they opened their Prince Frederick store. In April 2016, they opened their Lexington Park store. All have the same name.

Chuck said there was an overwhelming demand from members of the military for a St. Mary’s County location.

He describes each shop as offering a comfortable island-themed setting for adults with “good jams” and “cool artwork.”

“We service a wide range of customers. We have some that are 80 years old,” Candice said, but reported that ages 30 to 50 are their main customer base.

“The 70- and 80-year-olds come in the shop and say, ‘I’ve smoked for 50 years, and I’m done with it.” We’re like, ‘That’s a win for us,” Chuck said.

Effective Oct. 1, the state of Maryland raised the minimum age for buying tobacco products to include cigars, cigarettes and electronic smoking devices from age 18 to age 21. Active military personnel under 21 are exempted.

Retailers are required to display signs alerting customers to the new law referred to as T21.

“We card at the door, and if they don’t have an ID or they’re not 21, we ask them to leave,” Candice said, pointing out that they proudly have their T21 sign on their establishments’ doors. Candice said they also want to make sure the youth do not have access to tobacco products off their premises as well.

“It is not our goal to addict anyone to nicotine,” Candice said. “We’ve existed and built this business to help people.”

For those of legal age, the couple said the vape technician will ask a new customer how many packs a day do they smoke and what brand and type of cigarettes they smoke. For those who do not smoke, Candice said, “we don’t recommend you vape. Our mission here is to stop adult smokers — we want you to quit cigarettes. That is our mission.” For those non-smokers insistent on vaping, Candice said they would steer them towards something without nicotine.

Typically, new customers complete a questionnaire and based on their responses. They are steered towards a personal vape device that is going to help them to lower their nicotine and eventually stop altogether, according to Chuck.

The couple tries to guide new vapers to flavors they enjoy outside of smoking, which they believe is key to quitting smoking. However, they do receive requests to mimic cigarette flavors.

Vape Jungle offers over 100 flavors, with lower levels than cigarettes.

Vape Jungle’s most popular flavor in its Prince Frederick store is Peach-Blue Raspberry, a sweet candy flavor, according to vape tech Spenser Ross.

However, a recent outbreak of vape related illnesses and deaths nationwide is threatening the industry and its flavor alternatives.

As of Oct. 2, there have been 20 cases in the state of Maryland.

Nationally there have 18 deaths and more than 1,000 related illnesses. Lawmakers across the country are pushing for a ban on flavors hoping that vaping will be less attractive to minors.

Candice, concerned about the proposed flavor bans, stressed that it is important that adults have a choice other than tobacco flavors.

“You’re trying to move away from tobacco. It’s certainly something you are not trying to taste again,” Candice said. “It also leads to a relapse.”

“Without green apple-flavored vape, I would have never quit cigarettes,” Candice said.

Chuck admits he likes the cereal and dessert flavors.

And “98% of our customers use dessert and fruit flavors,” Candice said. “There is a small number of customers that use tobacco and a smaller number that have quit smoking using tobacco flavors.”

To help protect the business they have built, the Gotts are members of the Maryland Vapor Alliance. The alliance is a registered 501C6 trade that works with the vape industry in Maryland to help craft common-sense legislation to make sure vapor products can stay in the hands of adults who want a healthier alternative to smoking,” according to its website.

“They are actively working with our legislators to offer them options that are viable and good for youth and adults,” Candice explained. “Which is what we need to look for here.”

The Gotts point to black market products some laced with the primary cannabinoid in marijuana tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, as the source of the illness.

“THC is not sold in our store,” Candice said. “Nicotine vapes is our game.”

Candice also points out that while e-juice, which is put into personal vaping devices, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but said they are FDA regulated.

Candice, who has a regulatory background, said that manufacturers of e-juice must submit to the FDA a constituent list of what is in the product, label requirement as well as standard operating procedures to show how their products are made. She said the manufacturers are

also audited.

“Every juice we sell in here is FDA regulated,” Candice said.

She said the alliance is working to put in place basic labels instead of big and flashy labels and cartoons that may attract kids.

The pair also draws the distinction between retail vape businesses and well-known Juul, an e-cigarette manufacturer.

“There is a misconception that we are big tobacco or big vape. We’re not. Ninety percent of [vape] businesses are small businesses,” Candice said. “We don’t own Juul. We don’t sell Juul. We don’t want to be associated with Juul.”

To protect their livelihood and the livelihood of their 15 employees, the Gotts traveled to Capitol Hill, and they have been fielding the concerns of their customers.

Candice said, “I definitely think there’s a need to keep these out of the hands of the youth, but we need to make it fair for adults.”

The couple feels like they have been demonized by the community and want to make clear it is not their goal to addict anybody.

“This has been one of the best health interventions in my life,” Chuck said. “We are on the right side of history.”