You won’t find the Marlboro Man pushing tobacco on TV anymore, but you will find other familiar faces flaunting electronic cigarettes. Celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, Stephen Dorff and Courtney Love have signed on to pitch the devices, and national sales of e-cigarettes have caught fire.
In North Texas, e-cigarettes are big business, even though physicians worry they aren’t as benign as we’re being told. There are very few rules on where you can use them, so usually, it’s inhale before you inquire.
Gill Snyder, who’s 25, has been sipping a coffee at Pear Cup in Dallas and vaping – that’s what they call smoking an e-cigarette. Like a lot of converts, Snyder picked up his first pack of traditional cigarettes young – at sixteen – and has tried to quit several times.
“I’d always go back, it would start with one cigarette here and one there and next thing I know I’m smoking a full pack a day again,” says Snyder.
Until he found the e-cigarette. The one he uses isn’t an imitation of the Marlboro’s he once smoked – though plenty of those are on the market – his looks like a small, black flashlight with a mouthpiece on the end. The device uses a battery to heat a liquid nicotine solution, so instead of smoke, you get vapor.
“Whenever I inhale it gives me a like a nice feeling in the chest like a regular cigarette would. I don’t crave smoking cigarettes, it’s been pretty nice,” he says.
Caroline Rickards is studying e-cigarettes at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“They’re [e-cigarettes] being advocated as an alternative to cigarettes but the long term effect is really unknown right now,” says Rickards. “The issue is that because they are relatively new to the market there’s just not the long term studies we really don’t know.”
E-cigarettes don’t have to play by the same rules as tobacco cigarettes. Minors are free to stock up in stores and online, and the FDA doesn’t currently regulate the chemicals in them. And while e-cigarettes don’t contain tar or carbon monoxide, some have carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, including an ingredient used in antifreeze according to the FDA.
Still, business is booming.
Every day, around a hundred people walk into Vixen Vapors in Pantego. Lyndee Davis opened the electronic cigarette store – decorated with red, white and blue – a year and a half ago.
“We started the shop with just three people and just us three…now we have 25 employees to help us run the store and the day-to-day functions,” says Davis.
This is the Starbucks of E-cigs. You can get the device itself, all the accessories -- charging cables, lanyards, car adaptors -- and any nicotine strength and flavor combination you want.
“Well our most popular flavor is Tiger’s Blood. Ambrosia is a fruit blend that’s really popular, [and] pixie dust is still popular, like orange pixie stick,” says Davis.
Critics say combining nicotine with candy flavors is a surefire way to get teens and kids hooked on a substance we don’t know much about. Davis says it’s a combination that helped her quit smoking. Over a period of months, she lowered the amount of nicotine in her liquid concoction down to zero. She still takes hits from her e-cigarette every few minutes: The flavor?
“Crunchy monkey cupcake, which is like a peanut banana cupcake. It’s really good!” she says.
Prices vary, at Vixen Vapors starter kits go for fifty-five dollars, and refills are about four bucks. Still, makers and users say you save money over time. So far, the hand-held devices have been most popular with millenials, but more experienced smokers are also vaping.
Pat Cox of Fort Worth, who wears her e-cigarette on a lanyard, doesn’t have to go that far. The FDA has no rules on the devices just yet, but plans to start regulating them. And that’s good news for doctors worried that vapor might not be as benign as it seems.
“After 58 years quit smoking and I wouldn’t trade my vapor for all the tea in China,” says Cox.