• May 28, 2024

Island Alternatives

 Island Alternatives

Kyla Peters (credit: Timothy S. Donahue)

Credit: Solarisys

Vaping on the island of Sint Maarten is slowly starting to make a dent in combustible cigarettes sales.

By Timothy S. Donahue

One in five people smoke combustible cigarettes on the island. There isn’t any wonder why. A carton of the leading super premium brand American Spirits retails for $25. There isn’t much incentive to switch to vaping products when a 3,000-puff disposable vape costs $20 or more. The island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin (SXM) is duty-free, so traditional tobacco products are cheap. Vaping products, however, can be expensive and limited in choice depending on where you look.

There are no smoking regulations on Sint Maarten (the Dutch side of the island). However, in Saint Martin (the French side of the island), the rules for smoking are the same as in France. You can smoke or vape pretty much anywhere, though. Research indicates just 1.4 percent of Dutch adults regularly use an e-cigarette, but one in five adults still smokes tobacco. No statistics could be found for the French side.

Legislation has recently been proposed to ban smoking in all restaurants, bars and casinos; however, smoking is currently allowed inside bars and restaurants in Sint Maarten. Many restaurants do not accept cigar or hookah smoking. Many bars, such as the popular Red Piano in Simpson Bay, encourage the use of e-cigarettes. “You can smoke cigarettes inside. We tried to stop that, but it didn’t work out,” an employee said. “Vaping is strongly encouraged in the smoking section as it is less disturbing for other patrons, staff and entertainers.”

Kyla Peters (credit: Timothy S. Donahue)

France’s National Assembly recently unanimously approved a bill to ban disposable e-cigarettes. If that becomes law, and the French side of SXM also bans those products, prices will rise further on the more tourist-heavy Dutch side of the island. Likely, shops on the French side would just keep selling them, however, even if disposables were to be banned technically, according to locals.

The vaping market is growing in SXM, even with the challenges of cheap combustibles. Kyla Peters, with Don Caribe Souvenirs in Philipsburg, said that many locals are switching to vaping products, but the tourist shops aren’t where they buy them. Residents go to “Chinese grocery stores” (as locals call them) because the products are less expensive and good quality. There have also been a few vape shops that have opened on the island.

“There are some things locals just won’t buy in the tourism-heavy areas on the island, and vapes are one of those things,” explains Peters. “The difference between buying an Elf Bar, for example, can be $5—or even more than that—less expensive when you start moving further inland.”

Peters said Elf Bar is the most popular brand that she sells. It is also one of the most popular brands across the island. The most popular flavors are fruit and mint. She also said that the main reason for the higher costs of vaping products on the island is often the cost of shipping. It’s expensive to ship goods to small Caribbean islands. However, that cost is balanced out by the island being duty-free.

“We don’t have tobacco taxes; there are no customs duties, VAT or other indirect taxes to pay. That is why cigarettes are so cheap. We sell a lot more cigarettes on the island than vapes, but vapes are a growing market,” Peters said. “There are a limited number of vape shops on the island; they are mostly ‘smoke shops’ that sell all types of nicotine products. As the popularity of vaping grows, I do believe the consumer cost of vaping products will come down, and locals, especially, will start to vape more.”

Stephanne Martin

Buying vapes at a vape shop is a better alternative than a souvenir shop by a cruise ship port. In February, the Purple Fox Smoke Shop opened in Simpson Bay. The owner, Stephanny Marlin, said that business has been growing steadily. “It’s been great, honestly,” she said. “I would say it’s a mix of both; it’s 50/50, locals and tourists.” She noted that disposables were the most popular items, followed by e-liquids. “We also sell pod systems, but they are not as popular as the other products.”

The Purple Fox, however, offers a 9,000-puff disposable for $24. That would bring the cost of vaping below even the super low price of combustibles on the island (on a per-puff basis). A former smoker herself, Marlin said many former smokers switched because vapes don’t stink like cigarettes and the cost of vaping has become more reasonable.

“I quit smoking a while back. But if you buy a pack of cigarettes, maybe it’s $3, $4, and you get, what, 20 cigarettes. But when you’re buying a vape, for example, the ones that I sell, which is 9,000 puffs for $24, you’re getting way more value for your money,” Marlin explains. “So, it’s worth the price. I haven’t had anybody complain about the pricing.”

The island will likely continue to be a haven for combustible tobacco products. Lawmakers are attempting to enact flavor bans for vaping products, and youth uptake is a concern for the island. However, for an island with such a large number of combustible smokers, the harm reduction potential of vaping on the small island is huge.