Vapor cigarettes touted as way to kick tobacco, but regulation looms

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:37 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Heather Peters exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at Aqueous Vapor. Peters began using an e-cigarette to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes.

**CORRECTION: The purchase price of Blu eCigs was $135 million.

COLUMBIA — David Bartel crouches beside a brightly lit display case in the Aqueous Vapor shop. Through the glass, he studies electronic cigarette components: tanks, atomizers and upgraded batteries.

He asks to see an upgraded atomizer and expertly screws it into the holder. Putting the device to his lips, he presses the activation button.

Bartel inhales long and deep. He then lifts his head and exhales a plume of white vapor into the air.

At the other end of the room, Bartel’s wife, Tammy, is looking for a new flavor. She scans a shelf of little identical vials, the type you’d see in a medicine cabinet, and reads names off a flavor menu: “Jedi Juice.” “Turkish Honey.” “Mother’s Milk.”

She fell back on the reliable cinnamon flavor she usually picks.

The Bartels are just two of many mid-Missouri residents attempting to quit tobacco by switching to electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, that use battery-powered heating coils to vaporize a flavored liquid that delivers a controlled dose of nicotine.

With anti-tobacco campaigns and no-smoking ordinances becoming widespread, e-cigarette companies and vapor stores claim their products contain fewer harmful chemicals than traditional cigarettes for the smoker and present no health risks from secondhand smoke.

Many e-cigarette smokers say it is the only thing that got them off tobacco after several other efforts to quit. And some argue they should be allowed to use vapor cigarettes in public places where tobacco is banned.

But as the popularity of e-cigarettes grows — there are now four vapor stores in Columbia — so do questions about their safety.

Last week, the Missouri legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jay Nixon that would prevent minors from buying electronic cigarettes. In April, the Food and Drug Administration stepped into the ring by proposing strict regulation of e-cigarettes.

Proposed FDA regulations would include health-warning labels on packaging, a nationwide ban on sales to minors, and an FDA review and approval process for current and future e-cigarette manufacturers.

Health concerns

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, announcing the regulatory plans in April, said electronic cigarette “products are evolving with no regulatory oversight and being marketed in ways that are very worrisome.”

There's a growing body of science to support the concern. Ten carcinogens and toxins, including cadmium, lead and nickel, have been identified in e-cigarette vapor, according to the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

These compounds are listed as known cancer-causers in California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires products in the state containing carcinogens and reproductive toxicants to carry a health warning.

A new study to be published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research finds that when e-cigarettes generate enough heat, they can produce formaldehyde and other carcinogens, the New York Times reported.

Problematic, too, are younger smokers. A survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 2011 to 2012, e-cigarette “experimentation and recent use” by middle and high school students more than doubled from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. Of those surveyed who had experimented with e-cigarettes, 9.8 percent had never smoked traditional cigarettes.

At this point, there are no legal age restrictions on purchase or use of the products, but many vapor stores, including those in Columbia, have internal policies against sales to minors.

A sign on the door to Aqueous Vapor notes that no one under 18 is allowed in without a parent.

“From day one, we knew legislation was coming,” said James O'Shea, manager at the Business Loop location. “We’ve never sold to minors.”

But a local health organization is taking a neutral position on the concerns over e-cigarettes.

“There haven’t been a lot of studies, and so data is inconclusive. That’s really all we know right now,” said Andrea Waner, spokeswoman for the Public Health and Human Services Department. 

She said the department recommends nicotine patches as a tool for smokers seeking to quit.

Efforts to quit

Tammy Bartel, 44, said she started smoking at age 9 and had tried several other ways to quit smoking before taking up vaping. Prescription drugs like Chantix didn’t work, she said. Neither did her efforts to quit cold turkey.

She said she had been smoking at least a pack a day until she and her husband bought starter kits from a smoke shop in Jefferson City.

She had two packs of cigarettes in her freezer for three months until she sold them. She said she hasn't smoked in three months.

David Bartel, 29, was a habitual tobacco chewer. After taking up vaping, he said, the only time he still has cravings for tobacco is when he plays “Call of Duty,” an online X-Box game that allows players to communicate with each other through headsets.

“I can hear the guys I play with spitting (tobacco) on the other end of the line,” he said. “And I know what that sound is.” But he said he’s stayed tobacco-free.

The Bartels both believe e-cigarettes to be healthier than traditional tobacco products. And they feel at ease vaping inside their home in Jefferson City, where they live with their kids.

“I can blow this is his face all day long and it won’t hurt him,” David Bartel said, pointing at his young stepson, who accompanied them to the shop.

Electronic cigarette chain

Aqueous Vapor opened its first store on Business Loop 70 in June last year. The company has since opened five more — three in the Kansas City metro area, one in Jefferson City and another in Columbia.

The most recent Aqueous Vapor store, located in a strip mall on Conley Road, held a grand opening party in April. A DJ played dance music and reggae while employees served liquor and beer. White clouds of vapor hung inside the shop. It was a scene more akin to a cigar bar than any you’d ever find in a place selling traditional cigarettes.

O’Shea said Aqueous Vapor does not use the term “smoking” when referring to the use of its products. A former smoker himself, O’Shea said he has seen vaping work for other people who want to quit tobacco cigarettes.

“I’ve heard some old ladies who have smoked for decades call us a godsend,” he said.

O’Shea said most pack-a-day smokers start vaping with 18 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter of their e-liquid, the flavored fluid that becomes the vapor. This is about the amount of nicotine in a single pack of cigarettes.

The recommended practice is for vapers to reduce the amount of nicotine in increments, from 18 milligrams to 16 to 12 until, ideally, they get down to zero and give up vaping as well.

“Eventually some regulars just stop coming in,” O’Shea said.

But some proponents argue that even if they keep up the vaping habit, they haven't eliminated the nicotine.

Switching to nicotine-laden vapor is enough for other smokers. Heather Peters, 35, switched to vaping in March after smoking for about 20 years. Once a pack-a-day smoker, she hasn’t smoked a real cigarette since making the switch, she said. But she doesn’t intend to drop below the 18 milligram level.

“I’ve read the studies about what the chemicals actually do to your lungs,” Peters said. “And I still feel it’s way better than smoking.”

Health reasons aside, Peters said she prefers vaping to smoking because of the costs. She was spending upward of $35 each week on cigarettes, she said. After the initial investment in her tank system, her 10-mg bottles of peach-watermelon-cantaloupe- flavor e-liquids only cost $7.99 and last about a week, she said.

Peters’ biggest concern over the controversial technology is keeping it out of the reach of her three children. She keeps her e-cigarettes and extra e-liquids in her car.

“You can’t be careless with it,” she said.

Multimillion-dollar industry

Electronic cigarettes hit the U.S. market in 2007 and became a $20 million industry within a year. As taxes on traditional cigarettes, social taboos against smoking and laws prohibiting smoking in public increased, the vapor cigarette industry experienced explosive growth. Last year, sales were estimated to be worth $1.5 billion nationwide.

Big tobacco recognized a serious competition from its battery-powered rivals — and serious potential for new profits. The three largest tobacco companies are now invested in the electronic cigarette industry.

Lorillard Tobacco Co., the parent company of Newport cigarettes, was the first to move in, purchasing Blu eCigs in 2012 for $135 million**. Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., manufacturers of Marlboro and Camel, respectively, have since moved into the e-cigarette market, as well, according to CNBC.

In 2013, Lorillard launched an aggressive ad campaign promoting Blu eCigs. Commercials feature actors Stephan Dorff and Jenny McCarthy vaping wherever the urge strikes them and playing up the glamour that was once prevalent in traditional cigarette ads. The ad campaign’s theme: freedom.

For an industry that began by emulating big tobacco’s business model of selling their products in gas stations and grocery stores, the big break for electronic cigarettes seems to reside in the vapor shops such as Aqueous Vapor and Midwest Vapor Lounge, also on Columbia’s Business Loop.

The vapor stores deal exclusively in e-cigarette products and aim for the lounge feel of a cigar bar or a café. Both Aqueous Vapor and Midwest Vapor Lounge are furnished with black leather couches for patrons to sit and enjoy their vaping.

The experience of buying vaping equipment and products is also distinct. Traditional cigarettes were something you picked up while you were filling up your gas tank or shopping for groceries. If you did go to a store exclusively for cigarettes, it was a quick transaction that required the exchange of only a few words between smoker and vendor.

But in a vapor shop, commerce is accompanied by guidance. Employees explain the starter kits and different flavors, answer questions about upgrades and let customers sample new products.

That boutique approach has encouraged a growing community of e-cigarette users whose interest in vaping goes beyond the desire to quit smoking. They purchase upgraded parts, become connoisseurs of e-liquid flavors and even rewire their atomizers to produce more heat and more vapor.

A social media or Google search for "#cloudchasers" reveals a growing culture of vaping enthusiasts. They post photos and videos of themselves vaping, showing off the size of the clouds they produce. These usually include a “specs” list of all the components in their electronic cigarettes.

Many “cloud chasers” have also followed wine connoisseurs into the world of video blog reviewing. Broadcasting via webcam from bedrooms or kitchens, they show off their customized e-cigarettes and sample and describe the flavors and products.

O’Shea calls these the hobbyists. They’re the one’s who will probably keep the industry alive even in the unlikely event that everyone quits smoking tobacco cigarettes. Even after they’ve reduced their nicotine level, cloud chasers keep vaping.

Hobbyists are "the ones buying the expensive mechanical modifications, trying to get the most customizable experience, and buy the rare components,” O’Shea said.

David Bartel said he’s likely to be one of them. After three months on e-cigarettes, he’s even learning about building his own vapor tanks.

“I’m at the (Aqueous Vapor) shop in Jefferson City just about every day,” Bartel said.

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