ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a recent Saturday in September, Chris and Antoinette Garcia were belly up to the sales bar at Vapor Space in Albuquerque for their latest nicotine fix.
The couple began using electronic cigarettes this summer to quit smoking, something neither had been able to do previously with nicotine patches or gum.
But after two months of inhaling nicotine-laced vapor through devices they bought at Vapor Space, they both now swear by e-cigs as the holy grail for smokers looking to quit the habit.
“I’ve smoked a pack a day of cigarettes since I was a kid,” said Chris, 32. “But now I don’t smoke. I haven’t had one cigarette since two months ago.”
Antoinette, 25, said nothing else worked for her until now.
“I tried the nicotine patch, and I ended up smoking even while I used it,” she said. “But now I haven’t smoked since we started with the e-cigarettes. That’s the first time in eleven years.”
Like the Garcias, thousands of consumers in Albuquerque and elsewhere are starting to embrace e-cigarette devices, which deliver small amounts of nicotine to users’ lungs as part of a flavored vapor that people inhale.
Their growing popularity is generating a new thriving industry at the local and national levels, with hundreds of varieties of e-cigarettes now available at nearly all smoke shops, convenience stores and retail outlets, and at specialty stores such as Vapor Space.
But as consumer demand expands and e-cigarette businesses gain ground, debate is becoming more intense over the alleged benefits and the potential dangers of inhaling nicotine and other ingredients in the vapors. That debate may take center stage in late October, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to release its first proposed regulations for e-cigarette products.
“With public awareness now widespread, the industry is no longer really in its infancy, but rather it’s out of its diapers and in crescendo,” said Freddy Olsen, owner of Vapor Space at the corner of Montgomery and Wyoming boulevards. “But the question of regulation will certainly help shape how stores like ours move forward. Right now, the industry is totally unregulated.”
Industry skeptics, which include the American Lung Association and the World Health Organization, say not enough is known about the short- and long-term effects of inhaling nicotine, nor the impact of some of the ingredients used to make the vapor and flavored liquids. That includes propylene glycol, which contributes to what smokers call the “throat hit,” or harshness felt when puffing on an e-cig. It also includes vegetable glycerin and flavoring.
But industry advocates counter that no study to date has shown e-cigarettes contain any levels of ingredients or toxins harmful to humans. In addition, they eliminate all the toxic chemicals that come from smoking regular cigarettes, such as tar and carbon monoxide, most of which is created when tobacco and filler products are burned.
And, while nicotine is highly addictive, the e-liquids used in electronic cigarettes contain only a fraction of the nicotine levels found in tobacco products.
“I tell customers that I can’t say outright that it’s harmless, but I can say in good conscience that it’s 1,000 times less harmful than smoking,” Olsen said.
Despite the uncertainties, e-cigarette use is growing rapidly. Early this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in five adult U.S. smokers, or 21 percent, have either tried or now use e-cigs. That’s up from 10 percent in 2010.
Sales are exploding. A new report by analysts from Wells Fargo projects the market will reach $1 billion this year, up from $500 million in 2012 and just $20 million in 2008.
Most major tobacco companies are in the market, such as Lorillard and the Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation’s largest cigarette maker Philip Morris USA.
And some big new players are capturing a major slice of sales, such as NJOY, an Arizona-based e-cigarette firm that distributes its product in about 75,000 convenience and retail outlets in the U.S., said NJOY President and CEO Craig Weiss.
“We’re in all 50 states in stores like 7-11, Circle K, Wal-Mart and Costco,” Weiss told the Journal. “Most estimates now put e-cigarette penetration at between 1 and 2 percent of the market, so the potential is still quite enormous. We believe it’s an $80 (billion) to $90 billion market in the U.S.”
But it’s really two parallel markets that are emerging. On the one hand are the traditional tobacco firms and companies like NJOY that designed their products to look as much as possible like real cigarettes to appeal to smokers. Those are disposable devices that sell for about $9 per unit and last for about 300 to 400 puffs before consumers throw them away.
“Our product has a paper feel, a soft tip and a flip-top package, because those things remind (users) of what’s familiar to them as smokers,” Weiss said.
In contrast, specialty stores like Vapor Space sell a totally different product with no resemblance to a regular cigarette. Rather, they look like very large pens or small piccolos. They have three screw-in parts that include a rechargeable battery, an atomizer and a tiny tank for e-liquids.
The user hits a button on the battery to release a small voltage. That heats a coil in the atomizer, which has a wick touching it. As liquid drips onto the wick and the coil heats up, it turns the liquid to vapor, which users then inhale through a mouth spout.
The vapor sticks range from starting devices that cost as little as $30 to $40 to high-quality ones that can cost $150 or more. After that, users buy vials of e-liquids to refill the tanks. They cost between $5 and $10 in Albuquerque, depending on the store and e-juice quality, and up to $15 to $20 in other markets.
Olsen and other vapor store owners say their product creates a totally different experience for smokers compared to standard e-cigarettes. For one thing, because the e-liquids are mixed on site, store operators can raise or reduce the amount of nicotine in the juices, allowing smokers to slowly lower their nicotine intake.
“There isn’t always nicotine in the liquids,” Olsen said. “People ask for different levels, and we mix it up to 24 milligrams per milliliter. Some just get flavored vapor with no nicotine and use it for a smoking sensation, while others wean themselves down over time to get to zero.”
That’s very different from standard e-cigarettes sold by the tobacco companies, said Vapor Space store manager Luke Merry.
“Those guys offer a metered dose of nicotine all the time,” Merry said.
In addition, vapor stores offer scores of e-liquid flavors that they mix on site to cater to individual tastes of consumers, and to make the vaping experience as much about smoking flavored vapors as it is about satisfying a nicotine addiction.
“We have about 100 base flavors,” Merry said. “They range from key lime pie and chocolate after-dinner mint to lemon green tea and standard tobacco blends.”
Some stores specialize more in the vaping devices, while others concentrate on the liquids. Betamorph e-cigs, for example, which opened in July at 2000 Carlisle NE, specializes in e-juices, said co-owner Andrea Glass.
Apart from offering many different flavors, Betamorph customizes ingredients to better fit individual needs.
“A very small percent of the population is sensitive to propylene glycol,” Glass said. “It’s not a serious or dangerous allergy, it just causes discomfort, like a stomach ache, so for some customers we mix e-liquids that are 100 percent vegetable glycerin and zero PG.”
About 10 vapor stores now operate in Albuquerque, but the number is growing. In addition, many smoke shops now have sections devoted to vaping devices and e-liquid sales.
Apart from the nicotine crutch to quit smoking, e-cigarette users say they’re saving a lot of money. After the one-time investment in a vaping device, the user just buys vials of e-liquids, which can last up to two weeks, depending on the smoker.
“When my wife and I were smoking cigarettes, we were spending more than $40 a week,” Chris Garcia said. “Now we just spend $5 every two weeks for each of us.”
Store owners say they’re driven by the desire to spread what they believe are the benefits of e-smoking.
“I got into the business through pure enthusiasm,” said Olsen, who smoked for 25 years before quitting through vaping. “It’s something totally new and life changing.”
Glass said she wants to help people.
“We’re not in it to get rich,” said Glass, a first-time business owner who opened Betamorph with her partner, Dylan James. “It’s a new product that people are just learning about. I see huge potential for it to save millions of lives.”