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They come to Paul Davey for help every day. Most have little to no knowledge of the electronic smoking world and just stare, wide-eyed and perplexed, at the devices behind the glass: batteries, flavored e-cigarette liquid, chambers to hold liquids, mouthpieces. They're smokers—some lifers, some short-timers—who all have the same plea: They need to quit. "They'll say, 'I smoke seven [cigarettes] a day, and I've been trying to use these electronic ones, but I have no idea what's in it. I just know you buy it, you use it, and you throw it away.'"
He tells them his story. "I smoked for 27 years," he says, "and I bought my first e-cigarette online. Within a week, I had quit." Within a year, armed with his pharmaceutical background, he opened up the Vapor Loft in Orange. He sells all the necessary bits and bobs to start "vaping," the term used by e-cigarette users. But he also set out to educate customers in a community riddled with bad information, explaining everything from why it's called vaping (the devices create a water vapor that can be inhaled) to troubleshooting questions to helping them choose the right e-liquid. When the Vapor Loft opened in 2012, there were only a couple of such shops; now, Orange County is home to around 60, one of the highest concentrations of e-cig businesses in the United States.
But with the explosive growth of a new industry and equally new technology comes the inevitable regulatory interest of government. In February, California state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D-East Bay) drafted Senate Bill 648, which seeks to classify e-cigarettes as a regular ol' tobacco product, which will mean no more vaping indoors, in passenger vehicles, within 20 feet of an exit, or within 25 feet of a playground or sandbox. The bill passed the state Senate 21 to 10, and now awaits an Assembly vote.
Local e-cig businesses are understandably concerned.
"It's not smoke! There's no secondhand [smoke], and it doesn't leave a smell," says Jason Shaeffer, a recovered smoker of 38 years and the owner of the county's first store, E-Cig City in Laguna Beach. Most studies, he explains, have had a difficult time proving there are concrete, negative effects to vaping. In an effort to fight SB 648, more than 40 local shops pitched in money to send representatives to Sacramento to protest and attempt to educate the legislators. They tried to hire a lobbyist to speak on their behalf, but it ended up falling through.
What perturbs government officials is vaping's key ingredient: nicotine liquid, universally known in the community as "juice." It's made up of only three or four components—propylene glycol or vegetable glycol (substances common in many processed foods), natural or artificial flavoring, and nicotine. Critics say the secondhand smoke from the liquid is just as dangerous as tobacco smoke, and that the juice is more dangerous, given how concentrated it is. But so far, the FDA hasn't issued any regulations concerning juice—actually, it has gone in the other direction. Since their introduction, nicotine-heavy products such as chewing gums, patches and lozenges have been sold with labels advising against using them for an extended period of time or with another form of nicotine. Since the rise in e-cig popularity, however, the FDA has ripped these warning labels off, claiming it finally understood how the cessation products worked.
"It's not a surprise," Davey says, adding that big-name cigarette brands are now creating their own e-cigarettes, smelling a business opportunity.
"Nicotine isn't bad for you in the way people think," he says. "There's nicotine in many fruits and vegetables. The problem is that cigarettes have everything else that ends up causing cancer. But once you exhale the vapor, it's all gone. It just dissipates and isn't harmful to other people."
While Davey supported the endeavor against SB 648 and pitched in some of his own funds, he's skeptical the bill will be defeated. "They need to hear from real people," he says. The biggest fight vapers have is how nonsmokers perceive them. "A lot of young kids are all about seeing how big a cloud of smoke they can make, and it's annoying."
Plus, Davey points out, a lot of people mix up the kind of e-cigarette devices used for nicotine with the ones used for marijuana. "It's stupid!" he exclaims. "You can definitely smell the difference."
In anticipation of any government nosiness, many shops and makers have begun self-regulating to show they're good citizens. An organization called the American E-Liquid Manufacturing Standards Association (AEMSA) has created a protocol that juicers can go by to ensure their products are safe. "Right now, juicers can order all of the ingredients online and make it in their kitchen or bathroom," Davey says. "And if you don't know what you're doing with that huge quantity of nicotine, it could be dangerous and make someone sick."
Two of the county's popular juice makers, Kevin Drake of Drake's Vapes and Meg Strouse of Vape Goddess, both agree the intention of AEMSA is well-meaning but they and many of the juice makers they know prefer to take their work straight to a lab and have it tested themselves. "We really strive to be professional," Strouse says. "The ingredients that go into our juices are already FDA-approved, and we make sure to work in a sterile environment."
Drake, who shares a workspace with Strouse, likens making juice to being a bartender. "You can buy all your FDA-approved ingredients for a cocktail at the store, but then what good is it if you make the drink in a dirty bar? It's common sense," he says. "You don't need a million-dollar facility to create a good product—just don't make it in your bathtub!"
Even though most vapers are against the bill, the degree of their animosity toward it varies. Davey, Drake and Strouse say they aren't too worried because they don't see an issue with limiting the places where people can vape, and Shaeffer and others think it could be a detriment to the whole cause. But they're all nervous about how far government oversight will go.
"Vapers will be forced out into the smoking section, where they'll be getting secondhand," Shaeffer says, "and being surrounded by it could make it harder to quit."
The stress in Shaeffer's voice is palpable. "I've had people come in on oxygen who said their doctor told them they had to quit today. But I think a lot of nonsmokers have this quit-or-die attitude. They don't realize how many lives e-cigarettes can save."