Tom Williams is not blowing smoke when he talks about the growing popularity of vapor lounging. There is, after all, no smoke to blow.
The proprietor of Cloud 9 Vapor Lounge at 223 East Center Drive in Alton, feels he’s on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry as smokers nationwide seek new ways to quit tobacco. He’s also on the cusp of controversy.
“These have been on the West Coast since about 2008. There’s a store on every corner in California,” he said, using a bit of hyperbole to describe the rapid growth of the business.
“The Midwest is always a couple of years behind,” he added.
The area, though, is catching up. Vapor lounging is popping up across Metro East and similar-technique products are being sold at many local retailers, including Wal-Mart. The difference with lounges, Williams said, is a personalized approach they offer to helping customers quit smoking.
At the center of it all, of course, is the electronic cigarette, a controversial, penlike device that consists of a battery and a cartridge filled with various flavors of nicotine juice, referred to as e-liquid or e-juice. The battery heats the juice, which releases liquid vapors that are inhaled, giving users the sensation of smoking without the carcinogenic effect of traditional smoking. Some are designed to look like a real cigarette; others look quite different, more high tech.
The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the e-cigarette as a smoking-cessation device, but to suggest it doesn’t work is not true, Williams contends.
“The success (in response) is fairly immediate, My business has been open (three) months now. People go home and come back the next day, telling me they notice a difference. I pride ourselves on our knowledge. We help people understand the process and understand addiction. All six of our employees are ones who quit smoking by using these products.”
There is 1,800 square feet of space in the Alton store, with two lounge seating areas, making it one of the biggest in the market.
A state law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, prohibits anyone under 18 from buying, possessing, being sold to or being given an electronic cigarette.
Because of potential unknown risks, many school districts and public bodies are enacting policies to treat e-cigarettes like traditional cigarettes.
Even before the law, Williams was only allowing people 18 or older on the premises.
He describes his sale process as more of a consultation.
“Ninety percent is people wanting to quit, or spouses who are trying to help each other quit. We ask two main questions, what do you smoke and how long have you smoked?”
The answer will determine the nicotine concentration of the product that’s best for the customer. Someone who smokes a Marlboro Red for instance, which is one of the stronger cigarettes, is exposed to 18 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette. Cloud 9 suggests e-juice containing 18 milligrams by volume in response.
A light smoker, on the other hand, would get the equivalent of 4 milligrams of nicotine.
While some critics say e-cigarettes simply trade one addiction for another, Williams defends the approach, which he says focuses on treating two basic smoking addictions — hand-to-mouth repetition and nicotine use.
“Our goal is to give you a much safer alternative. You will quit smoking. It is absolutely amazing, the status of the people who come in to our store.”
To appeal to a variety of tastes, the store offers “70 to 80” flavors of premade e-juice, ranging from Mountain Dew Code Red to apple pie. The idea is, as smokers’ taste buds are restored, they will start craving alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
Williams, 37, himself is a reformed smoker, but he did it the old-fashioned way — giving up cold turkey about 10 years ago, after a two-pack-a-day habit stemming from his military days. He tried a smoking patch. It made him itch. And nicotine gum tasted “terrible.” The whole thing gave him empathy for people trying to quit.
“When I heard about this concept, from a friend who has store in Collinsville, I researched it, and we decided to do it — big and right. We had a methodology to our process.”
Some people come in for a starter kit and never return, while other visitors come in every day. The process is fondly referred to as “vaping” by supporters.
The e-cigarette cartridge — some call it a tank — is very light weight and holds the nicotine equivalent of “a pack or two of cigarettes” in the liquid, Williams said.
One of the big appeals is cost. Smokers will pay between $5 and $8 for a cigarette pack (and more with taxes). Williams offers a full starter kit for less than $55 (that would include a battery, two tanks that hold liquid, a case, a USB charger, an adaptor, and the juice, which costs about $12 and has the nicotine equivalent of about 15 packs of cigarettes).
“You walk out the door and can quit smoking immediately,” he said. “You can quit for the cost of a carton of cigarettes.”
The FDA’s reluctance to support e-cigarettes is spelled out on its website:
“As the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing:
– whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use,
– how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or
– if there are any benefits associated with using these products.”
Additionally, the agency said, it is not known if e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death.
Williams points out the hypocrisy of that stance, noting that the FDA has no problem with regulating actual cigarettes, which have far worse health consequences.
Williams said once people understand the chemical components of his products they are reassured.
Four things make up the liquid contained in the cartridges, he said: nicotine (optionally, nicotine can be left out); vegetable glycerin (similar to vegetable oil), which provides the vapor; flavoring extracts; and propylene glycol, certified as human ingestible and similar to what is found in asthmas inhalers and — in much higher concentration — in antifreeze.
While some businesses have banned electronic cigarettes in their settings, Williams said he’s found most restaurants and bars in southwestern Illinois are receptive.
“There’s no second-hand smoke; you can’t exhale nicotine,” he said.
That philosophy hasn’t stopped some government settings from taking action. Several states (not Illinois) have moved to ban indoor use of the products.
And while medical associations have publicly showed little support, individual doctors are among those referring customers to him, Williams said.
In 2010 the FDA, based on limited studies of samples, issued warning letters to electronic cigarette distributors for various violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act including “violations of good manufacturing practices, making unsubstantiated drug claims and using the devices as delivery mechanisms for active pharmaceutical ingredients.”
In reporting its results of those limited studies, “FDA found significant quality issues that indicate that quality control processes used to manufacture these products are substandard or non-existent. FDA found that cartridges labeled as containing no nicotine contained nicotine and that three different electronic cigarette cartridges with the same label emitted a markedly different amount of nicotine with each puff.’’
The American Lung Association is clearly opposed to e-cigarettes.
“A study has estimated that there are 250 different e-cigarette brands for sale in the U.S. today. There is likely to be wide variation in the chemicals that each contain, but in initial lab tests conducted by the FDA in 2009, detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals were found, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze, in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various cartridges. That is why it is so urgent for FDA to begin its regulatory oversight of e-cigarettes, which would include ingredient disclosure by e-cigarette manufacturers to FDA,” it said in a website statement.