November 5, 2013

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Vapor Trails

The e-Cigarette Business is Booming Despite Safety Concerns

By Devin Felix

November 5, 2013

The story of how Lacey Hall became a smoker is a common one. She was a rebellious kid, and whatever her parents and teachers told her not to do was instantly alluring. She picked up cigarettes when she was 12 years old, and before long she was addicted. The story that followed is common too: She got tired of exiling herself from public buildings whenever she needed a cigarette. She got tired of struggling to breathe. She knew she was slowly killing herself. So she decided to quit. She tried going cold turkey or using nicotine gum, but she always came back to cigarettes.

And the story of how she finally stopped smoking cigarettes is becoming more and more common as well. She heard about a device that could provide the nicotine her body craved, in a way that felt like smoking, but without the smoke. Once she started using electronic cigarettes, she was able to almost completely eliminate tobacco cigarettes from her life. She still smokes occasionally, but hopes to soon kick the habit entirely.

Electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes, have exploded in popularity in the United States and Utah in just a few years, especially among smokers looking to quit, creating thousands of e-cigarette devotees who swear by them and a proliferation of companies providing e-cigarettes supplies—including many in Utah.

Proponents say the devices have the potential to save millions of lives by providing addicted smokers a safer alternative to the myriad chemicals and carcinogens produced by burning tobacco. But not everyone sees e-cigarettes as harmless. Some, including Utah’s Department of Health, worry they have not been adequately tested and regulated and may bring unseen dangers to users. Members of the State Legislature and others fear that the devices may be luring teenagers and children into a life of addiction and acting as a gateway to cigarettes.

Despite such concerns, e-cigarettes seem likely to continue to grow in popularity. How they will be regulated and viewed by the non-smoking public is less certain.

Get Your Fix

Brad Bacher first heard about e-cigarettes in August 2009. As a smoker, he was intrigued by the possibility of a less hazardous alternative to cigarettes. As a programmer and tinkerer, he was intrigued by the prospect of a new electronic device. As an entrepreneur, he was intrigued by the business possibilities.

Bacher ordered an e-cigarette online and tested it out. It worked as advertised, but he thought the flavor options were too limited. He decided he could do better, so in January 2010 he started Gourmet Vapor, a company that makes and sells customized flavored e-liquid to individuals and retailers. The company’s website allows customers to create their own flavors by mixing and matching from among 109 flavored base ingredients.

The company grew by 900 percent in its first year, and by about 200 to 300 percent each of the following years, Bacher says. It runs a manufacturing facility in Ogden and opened a retail location in Ogden early this year. Gourmet Vapor has grown into a multi-million dollar company in its few years of existence. Bacher won’t give the exact figure, but says it made between $4 and $10 million last year. Gourmet Vapor is just one of a few dozen companies in Utah that makes and/or sells e-cigarettes and supplies, and as their popularity grows, so does the number of stores providing them.

E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles, but each has a few components in common: a battery, a heating element and a supply of liquid (sometimes called “e-juice”). The liquid consists of a base, usually propylene glycol (commonly used in theatrical fog machines) or vegetable glycerin, flavoring and, if the user chooses, a variable amount of nicotine. The heating element turns the liquid to vapor, which the user inhales. The vapor looks like cigarette smoke but is not nearly as strong smelling, and it dissipates quickly.

Using e-cigarettes has come to be known as “vaping” and users as “vapers.” Some e-cigarettes are made to closely resemble combustible cigarettes, while others look like props from a science fiction movie. Despite their differing appearance, all are intended to provide an experience that approximates smoking but without the smoke. It’s that similarity to smoking that makes many e-cigarette fans prefer them to nicotine gum or patches.

Nicotine is only part of what makes cigarettes addictive, says Tad Jensen, assistant manager of the Murray branch of ElectronicStix, an e-cigarette supply company with three stores in Utah. By approximating the physical actions and feeling of smoking, e-cigarettes can provide both the nicotine and the ritual that many smokers desire, he says.

The comparative costs of e-cigarette use are also much less than conventional cigarettes. Hall estimates she spends about $30 a month on e-juice and other supplies, which is a steal compared to the multiple packs of cigarettes she used to burn through weekly, about $7 each.

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