Jason Rimes struggled to quit smoking for 10 years, and with a baby daughter, he felt added pressure.
He tried patches. He tried gum. They didn’t work.
Two years ago, he found electronic cigarettes.
“These are what worked,” he said.
Louis Ramos, an expectant father, also decided he needed to do something about his 11-year cigarette addiction.
He went straight to e-cigarettes and has been “vaping” nicotine vapors for a week.
“I still need a [Newport] after a meal,” the Buffalo man said, but he continues trying “to trick" his brain so he can get off tobacco completely.
Ramos and Rimes are among the 3.5 million Americans the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates use e-cigarettes. And that is why you may have seen a vapor store opening recently and wondered what it was.
The product, typically a slim tube resembling a traditional cigarette, contains a lithium battery that heats up a cartridge of “e-juice,” a flavored liquid containing nicotine, when activated by inhaling or the press of a button.
The outcome: an exhaled odorless vapor that resembles cigarette smoke, without the smell, the yellowing of teeth or combustion.
The Buffalo region is “a vapor hotbed,” and there are about 15 local “vapor shops,” according to CJ Johnston, co-owner of The Vapor Trail, an e-cigarette store in South Buffalo. He said he expects the number of vapor shops to double in the area by the end of the year.
Andrew Osborne – the other co-owner of Vapor Trail – thinks more people will be “vaping” than smoking in five years.
How safe is it?
The Federal Drug and Food Association does not regulate, recommend or recognize the product as a smoking cessation, and researchers question it’s general safety – but the industry is booming.
The Tobacco Merchant Association estimates e-cigarette sales will double to $1 billion by the end of the year and reach $2.5 billion in 2017.
Tobacco companies are rolling out their own e-cigarette models, and celebrities like Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, are investing millions.
The advent of the ‘smokeless’ cigarettes has caused some backpedaling on the banishment of users to outside smoking areas. Some restaurants allow e-cigarette use, while large public venues, so far, do not.
Users like Rimes of Grand Island say they want to lower their nicotine intake to nothing over time. The liquids used can range from about 18 milligrams to 0 milligrams of nicotine.
Some users, like Bill Pietrzykowski, see the product as a traditional cigarette replacement and don’t intend to get off nicotine.
“But I’ve dropped smoking completely,” he said, after taking a drag on his Red-Bull-flavored cartridge.
A pack-a-day smoker can spend up to $300 a month on cigarettes. A similar supply of nicotine juice can cost $20 to $50, and starter kits can range from $35 to $65. Advanced models are over $100.
Local vendors say e-cigarettes are about reducing harm. But do they?
Dr. Maciej L. Goniewicz, a researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, has been studying the effects of e-cigarettes since 2010 and agrees, at least in part.
“When compared with tobacco smoke, the concentration of toxins is very low,” Goniewicz said.
The big question remaining, he said, is the long-term effects of inhaling vapor. With that unknown, he discourages nonsmokers from picking up e-cigarettes and said the best habit is for smokers to quit without seeking alternatives.
The e-cigarettes are “safer than tobacco cigarettes,” Goniewicz said. “But the other question is: ‘Is it safe?’ And we cannot yet say.”
The FDA website states the “safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied” and consumers have no way knowing if the product “is safe for intended use.”
Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County health commissioner, said she is “disappointed” with the FDA and feels the organization needs to “regulate the product at some level.” But she noted the FDA is “overwhelmed” and she isn’t sure where e-cigarettes fall on its priority list.
She worries that the variety of flavors e-juices can come in, like cotton candy, may appeal to a younger crowd and be a gateway into tobacco products. She said e-cigarettes “open up a complete world of unknown.”
In New York State, people can’t use e-cigarettes within 100 feet of an entrance to a public or private school and the products can’t be sold to minors.
John Bolla, who owns the Buffalo Vapor Lounge, with locations in North Buffalo and in West Seneca, thinks e-cigarettes are driving people away from tobacco.
That may explain why some tobacco companies are getting into the e-cigarette business.
After Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, saw sales drop by 5.2 percent in the first quarter, it unveiled its e-cigarette in August to a test market in Indiana.
Lorillard, which manufactures Newport cigarettes, bought Blu eCigs last year for $135 million.
NJOY, a Phoenix-area e-cigarette company, recently announced procuring $75 million in investments.
And R.J. Reynolds, maker of Camels, recently released an e-cigarette in Denver.
The product was introduced to the American market in 2006 ,and the tobacco company models are sold in gas stations for about $10, but avid users don’t recommend the disposable brands, which often contain juice from China.
The products have not just outpaced government regulation. Many restaurants and public venues are struggling with whether to allow guests to use them.
Ralph Wilson Stadium and First Niagara Center don’t allow e-cigarette use, citing the confusion it causes among other patrons and staff who are trained to uphold a no-smoking policy.
Laughlin’s on Franklin Street in Buffalo doesn’t permit e-cigarette use in its bar and restaurant, but around the corner at Cabaret on Pearl Street, John Lattanzio, whose wife owns the restaurant, lets patrons use them when it’s not crowded.
When it gets busy, he said people will go outside. Tempo, a restaurant on Delaware Avenue, permits their use.
“I’ve noticed that people who do use [e-cigarettes] have respect for other people,” Lattanzio said, adding that he thinks non-users “are getting more used to seeing them.”