Desperate to stop smoking cigarettes, Mike Settembre decided to give vaping a try.
For the Royal Palm Beach locksmith, Marlboro Country was a prison he could not have escaped without electronic cigarettes. In five years, Settembre has decreased his nicotine intake by 75 percent and figures he is spending about one-fourth the money in getting his nicotine these days.
“I got tired of waking up with an elephant on my chest and coughing up lung butter,” he said. “Now the smell of traditional cigarettes are off-putting. I can’t believe I used to smell like that and my car used to smell like that, too.”
Settembre finds himself a member of a rapidly expanding counterculture to traditional tobacco that is tweaking the nose of health officials, the government and some powerful industries. The Florida Health Department has made it a priority to check the growing vape trend by reaching out to the public to say vaping caters to teenagers and can be used for a new form of waxy marijuana called “dabs.”
But the vaping community says it has been unfairly disparaged and, pointing to studies in England, say that vaping’s nicotine delivery system is far safer than traditional tobacco.
And while big box stores are closing in disturbing numbers, vaping stores are the mom-and-pop wunderkinds, populating strip malls throughout the state.
In Palm Beach County alone, business license records show 47 companies with “vape” or “vapor” in their names. A new community has sprouted around these businesses where people come to vape and socialize. The more interesting establishments are brightly lighted, offering living room accommodations where patrons get lost in the cumulus clouds of vapor.
“It is a community,” said Jeremy Stein, who manages the company for three E Vapor Squad stores in Wellington, West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens. “If I see someone vaping and they see me, we immediately are attracted to each other.”
‘We are not smoking’
Some vapers are known as “Cloud Chasers.” They live to generate thick vapor. Others may be “Flavor Aficionados” who chase the perfect vape juice or mixture and can tell a vape juice by its smell.
But they all stand united in efforts to tighten the regulatory reins on what is a runaway phenomenon expected to be worth as much as $10 billion this year, according to the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association.
Ask many vapers and they are ready with the facts behind their passion. They distrust American media more than a President Trump supporter, saying that vaping has been unfairly degenerated by news reports. They are precise about the technology, talking wire gauge for coils to heat the e-liquid or the different styles of vapes available.
The nicotine used by vapers is the same as found in cessation patches or other products designed to stop someone from smoking. Some vapers will take offense if you even use the term smoking. “We are not smoking,” Stein said. “It is a water vapor whose main ingredient is the same thing found in a fog machine you see at concerts.”
But despite the rapid success story of vaping and e-cigarettes, vendors and customers alike feel besieged.
Catering to kids?
Much of the criticism from U.S. health officials about vaping is that it is aimed at children because of the fruity and dessert-like flavors of the nicotine e-liquid used in a variety of electronic cigarettes and wildly diverse vaping devices. And the flavors read like a diabetic’s nightmare: maple, strawberry cheesecake, salted caramel, coffee and variety of sugary cereals. The liquids sport exotic names like Pancake Man or Devil’s Liquid.
U.S. health officials — including Dr. Alina Alonso, the director in Palm Beach County for the Florida Health Department — say vaping remains wildly unregulated and poses dangers that remain unknown.
Alerting the public about “inhaled nicotine” is one of the seven priorities for the Florida Health Department, which notes that e-cigarette use among youth has increased 539 percent since 2011. The department has made “inhaled nicotine” one of its seven priorities.
“There is a rise in teens inhaling nicotine and I blame the e-cigarettes for that, the vapes” Alonso said. “Many of the teens feel the vapes are safe because they are flavored with cherry and all kinds of chemicals in it, but they definitely are not safe.”
There is also concern that marijuana can be vaped without its telltale smell, she said.
“There is no question they are targeting the kids because you wouldn’t see the flavors that you see,” Alonso said. “All we can keep doing is educating the public and trying to realize this is not a safe practice and hopefully we will see a change.”
The increase in vaping, though, coincides with an all-time low for the use of traditional tobacco products by teenagers, according to the Department of Health. And many vapers are ex-smokers, those in the industry say.
A 2016 U.S. surgeon general report dedicated to e-cigarette use among the young was resoundingly panned in some corners as failing to see vaping as a pathway for adults to stop smoking cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention piled on in 2013 when then-Director Thomas Frieden said vaping leads to traditional cigarette smoking among the young.
The Food & Drug Administration also struck last year, placing nicotine products under the federal Tobacco Control Act. Shops already couldn’t sell to minors, but now that the vape juice is being regulated stores can’t help customers with their devices or provide free samples.
A cultural shift
In America, the decline of the cigarette represents a cultural shift. The cigarette was once the epitome of Don Draper cool, while pipe-smoking was an affectation of the sophisticate and cigar-puffing was a sign of power and masculinity.
But cancer has a way of turning the tide. Today, cigarettes and other tobacco products carry the stigma once assigned to those afflicted with leprosy.
Now a new nicotine delivery system is in town and in this debate, there are no Switzerlands.
Those in the vape community say the U.S. government is coming down on the new industry because it is taking money from big tobacco companies, which are not heavily invested in vaping products. It also taking money from the $3 billion smoking-cessation market cornered by pharmaceutical companies through nicotine gum and patches. And let’s not forget Uncle Sam, vapers say, who rakes in plenty of taxes from the selling of tobacco products.
“There is a lot of misinformation about these products and public health officials are doing a disservice to the people they are supposed to serve by continuing to spout this misinformation,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association in Medford, N.J.
The American Lung Association states that it is concerned about accidental nicotine poisoning and poisoning from accidental ingestion of vape juice, saying the CDC has tracked emergency calls. It says the vapor has the same second-hand concerns as cigarettes of formaldehyde and other potential toxins, citing two studies but not naming them.
On its website the association states: “E-cigarettes are a tobacco product. The American Lung Association remains concerned about their impact on the public health, given the dramatic increase in use among youth.”
Last year, the association fed news reports about the “dangerous risk of flavored e-cigarettes” by pointing out that the e-liquid contained propylene diacetyl, a chemical component found at the time in artificial butter that contributed to a bronchial condition known as “popcorn lung.”
Conley concedes that diacetyl is present in some vaping juice, but at 100 to 750 times less than what is found in a cigarette. “They wanted to drum up a scare story,” he said. “Researchers who are opposed to vaping will generally not include cigarette smokers in their study.”
Conley’s top argument to health warnings on vaping is the Royal College of Physicians, which said, “The hazard to health arising from long-term vapor inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the harm from smoking tobacco.”
He said the push-back against vaping today is akin to the “Reefer Madness” hysteria in the 1930s about marijuana. As for smoking pot through a vape, Conley points out that people smoke weed through an apple bought at the grocery store, as well. Stores like E Vapor Squad don’t sell products that can be used to vape marijuana. It requires a special device to handle its very sticky resin.
And try as they might, vapers are still lumped in with smokers and thus are stigmatized by association.
Ryna Schalk at one of Stein’s shops in Wellington says if she hears the term “popcorn lung” one more time she is going to scream. Vapers know what they are putting in their bodies and are not out to invade anybody’s space and are not just a bunch of people blowing big clouds of vapor.
“This is a revolution,” she said. “There are people giving out misinformation about vaping because of Big Government, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. Vaping is taking money out of their pocket.”
Data reporter Mike Stucka contributed to this story.