Stacey Ford walked out of Uptown Vapor Lounge on Wednesday with an electronic cigarette filled with a flavored liquid, or juice.
She chose a sweet flavor reminiscent of her Uncle Jack’s tobacco pipe. Ms. Ford smoked cigarettes for more than 20 years and for the first time, has put them down. Dealing with asthma and COPD, she was forced to.
“I tried going cold turkey and (with) will power,” she said. “That didn’t work. As soon as I bought this, I quit.”
Ms. Ford still gets some nicotine, the addictive properties in cigarettes, but e-cigarette users tout that they are missing out on the thousands of carcinogens found in the real ones. In addition, they gradually wean themselves off nicotine.
Inside Uptown Vapor Lounge, e-cigarette smokers puff out thick white clouds of vapor. The store is faintly aromatic because of the more than 100 flavorful liquid solutions they use to fill e-cigarettes. Some bedazzled e-cigarettes look more like thick pens than smoking devices. Customers also can find adorned lanyards to hang their e-cigarettes.
There are two Uptown lounges, managed by Justin Campbell. They were the first to bring what they call “vaping” to Tyler. At least four more vaping stores have since opened in Tyler.
The $2 billion industry has seen upward growth in the past few years and shows no signs of stopping.
Meanwhile, government and health officials are leery about the trend, particularly the potential for children to develop a smoking habit.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week proposed a new rule that would allow them to regulate e-cigarettes the same way they regulate traditional cigarettes.
If the proposal is accepted, this would mean a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, prohibit the distribution of e-juice samples, prohibit the sale in vending machines, require warning labels and juices’ ingredients must be disclosed.
E-cigarette shop owners who spoke to the Tyler Morning Telegraph say they agree with some FDA regulation. However, they don’t want them to go too far.
“There has to be some type of regulation,” Campbell said. “There has to be some type of standardization in the industry. You have a lot of people who get into this business because they feel it’s a cash cow. They don’t necessarily take the time to do the research and development of their products and juices.”
He added, “They’re exercising quite a bit more power than they should by regulating each and every device and each and every component separately. That’s our personal stand.”
J.J. Hubbard, owner of Times Square Vapor Lounge, echoed the sentiment.
“I’m OK with some of the regulations, as in people need to do it the correct way and use the correct stuff,” he said. “Some of the regulations that they’re trying to come down with is going to put a lot of people out of business.”
Campbell said safety is important, and juices can be found at convenience stores. Customers may not know what chemicals are in the juice or where it comes from.
He also said dealers should guide people in their transition and tailor the juice to their smoking habits.
“Whenever they do get in the business, and they don’t know these things, they’re casting a shadow of a cloud over the industry because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Campbell said. “They’re making people sick. They’re putting the entire industry in a bad light because of their lack of knowledge.”
Campbell said the industry would be shaken if proposed FDA changes go into effect.
“Right now, I see an oversaturation in the market,” he said. “Once the FDA slams the iron gavel, I think you’ll see some fall by the wayside.”
‘WE DON’T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT IT’
While e-cigarette enthusiasts say smoking the device is a healthier alternative to regular cigarette smoking, health officials say there is no evidence they are safe.
Cities across the country have been banning the use of e-cigarettes in public places, including New York City and Chicago. Groups like the American Lung Association point to initial studies that found formaldehyde, benzene and tobacco-specific carcinogens from second-hand emissions.
Earlier this month, Smith County banned the use of e-cigarettes inside county facilities. E-cigarette users have no problem with this policy.
“I am totally fine with people not being able to use it inside a public building,” Campbell said. “If the owner said he doesn’t want vaping in there, don’t do it. Respect other people’s business and other people’s establishments.”
George Roberts, chief executive officer at Northeast Public Health District (NET Health), said since Smith County’s ban, he is considering discussing the issue with city leaders.
“We’re kind of watching this thing right now,” Roberts said. “We don’t know enough about it. I haven’t seen any studies that show these e-cigarettes are actually safe.”
He also said public health officials are concerned that the marketing of e-cigarettes targets children and teens. They fear it is a gateway to nicotine addiction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. The CDC also reported earlier this month a sharp increase in calls to poison control centers related to nicotine in e-cigarettes.
Sellers disagree that their products entice children and note that even alcohol comes in fruity flavors. While there is no law that forbids selling to minors, Uptown and Times Square Vapor lounges do not sell to them.
Dr. Leslie Couch, a pulmonologist at UT Health Northeast, said youth could easily be poisoned by liquid nicotine, as it can be absorbed in the skin.
As for the other ingredients — propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and flavorings — she and other health officials aren’t convinced they are safe alternatives when inhaled. She said since the product is relatively new, there’s no long-term study to prove that it doesn’t cause adverse effects or cancer.
“Breathing it in long term, are you going to have a problem? We don’t know,” she said.
For some of her patients, though, she said it might be resourceful.
“It might have a small role in what I call hopelessly addicted patients who really can’t get themselves off of it and are clearly having some significant health problem,” Dr. Couch said. “In that population, you don’t get as much nicotine. … I think there may be a role in a very select population. The problem is we don’t have long-term studies.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS AN E-CIGARETTE?
Those opposed to the device say it’s a drug delivery system, while users call it an effective alternative to cigarette smoking.
The device can resemble real cigarettes, but the most popular ones sold today are bigger and fashionable. Some are decorated with rhinestones or have decorative caps.
A battery heats up the chamber that contains the juice, the combination of nicotine and other liquids. The smoker then puffs on it and releases vapor.
Juice blends are mixed in the store and tailored to the customer’s smoking habit. Nicotine strength ranges from zero to 24 milligrams, which represents a two pack-a-day habit.
“Nicotine is never a good thing, but it is much healthier than the carcinogens and the tar that are in a cigarette,” Hubbard said.
Dr. Couch noted that there was a time when people didn’t know the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. Many got sick before the surgeon general began putting a warning label on them in the 1960s.
“I’d want them to quit smoking all together,” she said of patients. “All of the studies show that you have to want to quit and you have to change your habits.”