A year ago, a need for tobacco in Lynchburg could be fixed with a trip to one of several classic options: grocery and convenience stores or a tobacco shop.

Now, at least eight “vape,” or e-cigarette, stores have opened in the Lynchburg area, with one in Rustburg, Wyndhurst and Madison Heights, to name a few. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that can contain nicotine and that do not ignite, but heat, flavored juice that creates vapor.

The industry has been estimated to have grown to $2.5 billion this year from $1.7 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. Oxford Dictionaries named “vape” as its 2014 Word of the Year.

Tobacco, however, is an industry that exploded but was hit hard with government regulations and public backlash over health concerns. The Food and Drug Administration proposed rules on e-cigarettes this spring to ban sales to minors and include heath-warning labels.

And although vaping is not marketed as a healthy alternative, a couple of e-cigarette store owners in Lynchburg say for some, if not many of their customers, it is exactly that. Both said that even with incoming FDA regulations, they believe the industry is also there to stay.

“I’m sure we’ll see a fallout” from the regulations, said Cyndi Hall, owner of Best Vapes, which has store locations on Langhorne Road and in Madison Heights and opened a kiosk at River Ridge Mall last Friday.

“It’s a business that appears to be easy to get into… but that’s not what a business is about, it’s so much more than that,” Hall said.

Hall’s two Lynchburg stores are in some ways representative of the types of customers vaping shops can receive. On Langhorne Road, Centra patients visit the store looking for a healthier alternative to smoking.

“I don’t know of any reasons that I’d tell someone you have to stop vaping but I can think of a million reasons to stop smoking,” Hall said. In e-cigarettes only one carcinogen – a cancer-causing substance – has been identified. Sources vary on the number of carcinogens in cigarettes, but each one lists at least several dozen.

At the Best Vapes in Madison Heights, the atmosphere is more in line with recreational use, Hall said.

Working on a “dipper” is a bit like cleaning a gun. Dippers can be disassembled and remade to their owner’s liking, with self-wrought heating coils of varying thickness and cotton balls expertly applied and then dabbed with a dripper of flavored juice inside the device. Much of this is done to maximize the thickness of the vapor, or “cloud.” Not unlike a wine connoisseur, customizable dippers are part of shoptalk in the vaping community.

At Gorilla Vapes on Forest Road, clear glass cases display a variety of different e-cigarette products and devices. To the side are two couches, and on a Tuesday afternoon, video games were being played as people vaped.

“I think they’re very skeptical when they first come in,” said Bryan Neach, the store manager, adding customers become relaxed after an employee has talked with them about the products. About 80 to 90 percent of customers, he said, “come in – at first – to stop smoking.”

He had one 84-year-old customer with a three-pack-a-day habit that was more or less dragged in by his wife. Now, the man is vaping, slowly decreasing his nicotine levels.

Neach’s uncle opened the first Gorilla Vapes store in New Jersey several years ago. Today, there are eight Gorilla Vapes locations.

Neach welcomes the FDA regulations, but calls it’s a “double-edged sword.” Governance over e-cigarettes will help set a standard for healthy use and manufacturing, attracting previously hesitant customers but also make others more apprehensive.

Several debates revolve around the e-cigarette business, like its healthiness, public use, regulation and future as an industry. Those disputes and unanswered questions are natural for a new business, Hall said.

“I think no matter what it’s here to stay,” Neach said. “Vaping has been around for about eight years.”

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