ROCKINGHAM — Vaping is a term used to describe the use of electronic cigarettes, and its popularity is soaring.
Celebrities are seen at red carpet events puffing away on e-cigs. Manufacturers claim they are safe and harmless because they produce only water vapor and contain only nicotine and flavorings with none of the hundreds of other carcinogenic chemicals found in cigarettes. But government regulations could be just around the corner.
Electronic cigarettes are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its website as “battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor, and other chemicals.”
Policy director Roxanne Elliott of FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital said it modified its tobacco-free environment policy in May 2012 to include electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, prohibiting their use anywhere inside or outside on the grounds.
In 2013, the General Assembly of North Carolina ratified Senate Bill 530 which includes vapor products in the legal definition of tobacco products, making it a crime to sell them to minors.
At the March meeting of the Richmond Community College Board of Trustees, e-cigarette use was banned on all parts of its campus. Andy Cagle, director of marketing and communications for RCC, provided two reasons for the ban.
“One,” Cagle said, “it’s an equity issue for us on campus. We have a ban on tobacco products, so it’s not necessarily fair to allow e-cigs and not real ones. Two, there isn’t a body of research yet on the health effects of second-hand e-cigarette smoke. From a health standpoint, we don’t want to allow potentially hazardous behavior on campus while banning activities that are similar.”
Richmond Community is not alone in banning the products. Governments in New York City, New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota also have banned the use of e-cigarettes where smoking is prohibited.
Lawmakers have cited research that e-cigarettes, with a self-controlled delivery of nicotine, elevate heart rate and blood pressure but little else — and virtually no evidence they harm anyone but the user. A professor and scientist at the University of North Texas soon will lead a study on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes with what many hope to be scientific-based evidence one way or another.
Currently the chemicals and the devices used to deliver them are not regulated by the FDA, with the exception of those labeled for therapeutic purposes. Those are regulated by the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
While no official federal government warnings exist suggesting e-cigarette use is harmful to human health, nicotine is a known poison and the majority of e-cigarette vapor liquids contain it. Many bottles of flavored “smoke juice” have small print warnings on the labels that contact with skin or eyes, or ingestion of the fluid, warrants seeking medical attention. Because of the lack of regulation, however, such warnings are not required. Accidental poisonings of children and pets could certainly occur.
The flavors range from those mimicking natural tobacco or menthol cigarettes to special blends that taste like fruit, coffee and candy.
Disposable e-cigarettes and beginner rechargeable kits have been available in convenience stores and drug stores for a few years. Even tobacco shops like Tobacco Road Outlet in Rockingham have made room for electronics on their shelves alongside cartons of cigarettes and bagged pipe tobacco.
But specialty shops are opening in places like Southern Pines, Charlotte and Fayetteville. These businesses don’t sell any tobacco. It’s all vape. And they specialize in high-tech vaping equipment with buildable, interchangeable parts and more powerful batteries. They don’t resemble cigarettes or cigars in any way.
The vapor lounges are becoming popular spots for e-cig enthusiasts who want to taste different flavors before buying. Customers can choose from a variety of e-liquids and relax in a cushy leather chair or on the couch making giant clouds of scented water vapor.
One Stop E-Cig Shop is a vapor lounge in Rockingham. Opened by Renee Carter in August, the lounge has seen “a 30 percent monthly increase in revenue” she said.
The majority of people learned of her shop through word of mouth. Carter bristles when people say vaping is the same as smoking cigarettes.
“It frustrates me when people say it’s just the same,” she said. “It’s completely different. The vapor comes from safe ingredients. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine are ingredients found in foods, asthma inhalers and hospital air filtration systems. The flavorings used are food grade flavorings, the same as you find in bakeries and ice cream. And yes, there is nicotine, but nicotine is not what causes lung damage and emphysema and lung cancer. Those are caused by burning tobacco leaves that have been adulterated with chemicals and pesticides. You’re inhaling something that’s burning and making smoke. Vape is not smoke.”
Carter also pointed out that she makes juices that contain no nicotine at all and that some customers simply enjoy the pleasure of vaping and tasting the flavors.
Gina Davis, a manager of the lounge, calls vaping a life-saver.
“It’s cleaner and saves you money,” said Davis. “My doctor even recommended it. He said he started in order to quit smoking and it helped him quit. So I picked it up and never looked back. My lungs have already cleared up a lot.”
All three women running the lounge have quit smoking, and attribute their success to vapor products. Carter said that most of her customers tell her the same thing — that they are able to leave cigarettes behind.
There have been no long-term studies to confirm or deny any potential health risks tied to vaping. At this point, the testimonies of people who have given up smoking tobacco for vapor are all the knowledge that exists on the subject. But one thing is certain: people are successfully turning to e-cigarettes to put tobacco away for good, and it’s working for them.