Tobacco is a drag.
In 2013, Oklahoma ranked 39th in the country for adult smoking, which dropped from 47th place in 2012.
Smoking is Oklahoma’s leading preventable cause of death, according to the State Health Department, and there were 75,000 fewer adult smokers in 2012 than 2011.
However, many smokers have abandoned tobacco for electronic cigarettes, devices that produce a smoke-like vapor containing nicotine and can be flavored to taste like tobacco or various fruity, savory or sweet foods.
Greg Adamson, co-owner of Vapor Palace in Enid, said he thinks so many Oklahomans have dropped tobacco because of the need to get healthy.
“(Electronic cigarettes) are better than cigarettes,” he said. “We have more customers who are trying to quit smoking.”
Adamson said he started smoking an electronic cigarette around 2013 to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes, which he used for 19 years; his favorite vapor flavor is sugar bear, which he described as a sweet graham cracker taste.
Most people who use electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, e-cigs and vapor devices, are quick to distinguish the difference between using e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes, saying that because e-cigarettes do not use tobacco, they are not a smoking product.
Mary Conway, who owns ETown Vapor, said the appropriate verb is “vape.”
“‘Vape,’ it sounds real odd at first, but after a while it becomes normal,” she said. “It’s not smoking and I don’t want to call it smoking.”
Most people who use e-cigarettes consider themselves nonsmokers.
Shops popping up
Shops that specialize in electronic cigarettes and vapor devices have sprung up all over the United States and the world in the past three years, which has both spurred and supplied vapor demands. In April, there was an estimated 5,000 vapor stores in the country; Oklahoma accounted for 6 percent of those stores.
There are six vapor shops in Enid, with more popping up every day.
“Within the time I was looking for a place to open my shop, another shop opened,” Conway said. “And then another one closed down.”
Conway said the market eventually will balance out, but now the vapor market is becoming too saturated with suppliers that some stores won’t make it.
“I guess that about three more stores will close here,” she said.
ETown Vapor has more than 120 flavors of vapor, most of which comes pre-mixed, though many small vapor stores buy the ingredients and mix the flavor and nicotine concoction in-house. Users can vape with as much or as little, or no, nicotine as they want.
Deana Cash, Conway’s sister who helps out with the store, mixes her own flavor — caramel candy and cinnamon roll — and has dropped cigarettes after 40 years of smoking.
“It’s a lot healthier (alternative),” she said. “Your lungs clear up, and it’s cheaper and doesn’t put off secondhand smoke.”
Cash raises her two granddaughters and realized that after she stopped smoking cigarettes, the older granddaughter’s chronic congestion disappeared.
“I feel really bad that the secondhand smoke was doing that to her,” she said.
The health issues surrounding e-cigarettes are cloudy at best. They still contain nicotine, but don’t have tar or other chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes.
It’s the lesser of two evils, Adamson said.
“They’re better than cigarettes,” he said. “They’re still not great for you, but they’re better than cigarettes.”
Kim Keeler-Olson, a system tobacco treatment program coordinator with Integris Health Systems, said the science on the health benefits of e-cigarettes isn’t in yet.
“It could take 15 years to get conclusive studies in,” she said. “It could be a safer alternative to cigarettes. The 70 carcinogens found in cigarettes are not found in e-cigarettes and vapor. But we are still waiting for the FDA to say it’s safe or not.”
Keeler-Olson’s main concern with the rise in popularity of vapor devices is the possibility of nicotine poisoning.
“Calls to the poison control center for nicotine poisoning were up 300 percent last year,” she said.
Another concern is the increase of respiratory infections because vaping involves inhaling liquid into the lungs.
“You aren’t supposed to have liquid in your lungs,” she said, adding that vaping could increase complications for people with asthma.
The National Jewish Health released at study early this month revealing a link between e-cigarette liquid and an increased risk of respiratory infection. The study noted that within as little as 10 minutes after exposure to e-cigarette vapor, whether or not it contained nicotine, cells in the airways of healthy, young non-smokers responded with a high risk of infection, Dr. Hong Wei Chu said.
“The cells showed a strong pro-inflammatory response and the risk of viral infection in those cells rose significantly,” he said.
Kicking the habit
Still, the addiction to nicotine is hard to kick, Conway said.
“There are so many people that are addicted to nicotine and cigarettes and they are trying to get off of them, but it seems like more often than not, it doesn’t work,” she said. “E-cigarettes work.
“You can start off with the same level of nicotine as a cigarette and not have all the chemicals as the cigarette smoke, and there’s not the odor or tar.
“You can taper down your levels of nicotine until you’re at zero nicotine. I’ve had plenty of ex-customers who have tapered down and quit.”
Conway smoked cigarettes for 35 years before switching to e-cigarette two years ago.
“I always wanted to quit, always,” she said. “I heard about a store in Stillwater, and I went in and bought one and quit.”
A friend told her how to get started with a store and she ordered a starter kit the same day.
“As soon as I got it, I started having little vapor parties, and I got busy enough doing deliveries and parties that I needed a store,” she said.
Most Enid vapor stores started with a similar quit-smoking story.
Shane Berry opened Wicked Vapor in May after an effort to help his mother stop smoking cigarettes.
“She was a very heavy smoker,” he said. “She was smoking two-and-a-half packs a day.”
After getting her switched to vapor, he started vaping, too.
“A lot of people, about 50 percent of business is people wanting to stop smoking,” he said. “The other half is people who have stopped and are continuing to vape.”
The next step
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying the ingredients, manufacturing process and effects of e-cigarettes, but still have yet to come to a conclusion about safety and have not approved any vapor products as smoking-cessation products.
Legislation is in the works to regulate vapor products, which would require companies and stores that make vapor liquid to adhere to a standard of cleanliness, require a standard for proportions and ingredients, and require health warnings, similar to those on cigarette packaging, if necessary.
The next step, said FDA Press Officer Jenny Haliski, is development and production of a final rule, which would carry the weight of the law.
“We cannot speculate on when the FDA will issue a final rule,” Haliski said.
Regulation on e-cigarettes is troubling to some vapor store owners and users because regulation could mean a tax increase and make it more difficult to get vapor products.
“My problem will be with the taxes because if they tax it like with cigarettes, the prices will go up,” Conway said. “Right now, it’s less expensive than cigarettes, so we would have to charge more.”
Vapor starter kits start at $35, and a 10 ml refill bottle costs $5, which Cash said will smoke the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes.
Conway said she does support regulation for production, though.
“They need to regulate who makes the liquids,” she said. “I’m not in favor of small stores just buying all the ingredients and mixing all their stuff like that.”
Denise Eckert, who runs Spyder Vapor with her husband, where they mix their liquid in-house, said she supports regulation for manufacturing e-cigarette liquid.
“We’ve been watching it,” she said. “It’s a good idea to regulate manufacturing.”
Oklahoma already has moved toward regulation in the area of sales, making it illegal to sell vapor devices to minors.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law in April to ban sales to any under the age of 18, which was proposed in fear of children using e-cigarettes as a gateway to smoking tobacco; some anti-smoking groups felt the bright colors and tantalizing flavors offered would entice more children to start smoking at younger ages.
ETown Vapor was ahead of the curve in that aspect.
“We have never sold to minors,” Cash said. “At one point, it wasn’t illegal, but we knew it was going to be because it’s still nicotine.”