Popularity of e-cigs growing in Sylacauga
by Bill Kimber
Jan 08, 2014 | 2507 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Kimber/The Daily Home
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As the user sucks on the mouthpiece, the flavored juice is vaporized by an electric coil inside the e-cig.
Bill Kimber/The Daily Home

As the user sucks on the mouthpiece, the flavored juice is vaporized by an electric coil inside the e-cig.
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To hear Shelley Bowman tell it, electronic cigarettes are going to save the lives of thousands of American smokers by giving them a safe alternative to tobacco. To read the Food and Drug Administration’s website, inhaling the aromatic vapors from the devices could be harmful, but it’s too soon to know for sure.

One thing is certain: the popularity of e-cigs has grown in recent years, and got a boost with the resolutions of thousands of people starting off the new year.

“We’re converting a lot of smokers in Sylacauga,” said Bowman, who with her husband Eddie owns Wild Vapers, an e-cigarette store at the Victorian Village shopping center on West Fort Williams Street.

“It makes me so happy. Where do you get to go to work every day and know that you’ve changed somebody’s life?”

Bowman smoked cigarettes for 35 years, and began “vaping” 16 months ago. She and her husband did extensive online research on electronic cigarettes and the vapors that go in them. After finding some commercially available vapors too harsh, she began buying the ingredients and mixing her own “juice” so she could control the flavor, the contents and the strength of the nicotine in each puff of vapor.

“I found that I was vaping sucralose, which I don’t drink or eat. I started making my own so I would know what’s in there,” she said.

She planned to use the electronic cigarette as a step to quitting smoking altogether, but she likes vaping and has decided she doesn’t want to quit.

“As I did more research and saw it wasn’t harming me, I figured I’ve got as much reason to quit doing this as to quit drinking water,” she said.

The Food and Drug Administration says the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so “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, 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,” according to the agency’s website.

Electronic cigarette sales grew from 50,000 in 2008 to 3.5 million in 2012, and were expected to hit 5 million in 2013, USA Today reported last July, citing the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group.

Sylacauga resident Misty Hepp began vaping about a year ago. She had quit smoking cigarettes after 22 years, but over a year or so had never completely shaken the urge to smoke. During a stressful period, Hepp and her husband, Ryan Hepp, considered picking up cigarettes again, but decided they would both buy e-cigarettes. They still smoke them regularly.

“I wouldn’t go back to regular cigarettes,” she said. “I don’t like the smell or the feeling of tightness in my chest.

“You have to find a place that has liquids that you like. We ordered some online and it was gross,” Hepp said. “It’s nothing like smoking a cigarette. You’re not getting the mouth hit or the throat hit, but you’re also not getting all the chemicals that are in cigarettes and the fiberglass that’s in the filters. There’s none of the stink, and you can do it indoors,” she said.

She added that during a recent hospitalization, a respiratory therapist assumed she was a non-smoker.

“I’m not saying it’s good for you, but it’s better than smoking,” Hepp said.

FDA defines electronic cigarettes as “battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. They turn nicotine, which is highly addictive, and other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.”

Though there is no tobacco associated with the devices, FDA has stated its intent “to pursue a rule that would extend FDA’s tobacco product authorities to products that meet the statutory definition of ‘tobacco product,’” according to its website.

While there are no federal or state regulations on the products, some cities including New York City have banned their use indoors.

After an initial investment of $60 each for their starter kits, Hepp and her husband have upgraded to better-quality vaping equipment, with longer-lasting rechargeable batteries and electric coils that can be replaced when they burn out. She said a $15 bottle of juice lasts her about two months, but some other people go through it faster.

At Wild Vapers, Bowman recommends users buy a starter kit first. “When you get off cigarettes for a while and save some money, you can treat yourself to better quality eqiupment,” she said.

Hepp said she has seen a number of friends and relatives convert from cigarettes since she and her husband did. “It has become very popular, and I’ve definitely seen more people doing it since new year’s,” she said.

Bowman’s store is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and until 8 p.m. on irregular nights when her husband isn’t at his primary job.

“Smokers are used to the convenience of running to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes, so we’re open as much as we can be,” she said. “Part of transitioning to this is being able to plan ahead and get what you need.”

Throughout the day, Bowman talks to a nonstop parade of customers with an ongoing conversation about the care, cleaning and repair of their e-cigs. She discusses and sells accessories including lanyards to hold the e-cig, desktop stands, and carrying cases, as well as juice tanks, coils and batteries. She takes as long as each customer needs to learn to use their devices.

She tells customers to use white vinegar to clean their e-cigs’ components, and implores them not to charge their batteries in the car, on a cellphone charger or on a computer’s USB port.

“Battery safety is very important,” she said.

When the store is closed, she mixes the juice in a clean room in the back. She doesn’t want to be interrupted once she’s got surfaces sterilized and ingredients open.

“I’m fussy about doing it right,” Bowman said.

She mixes propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, pharmaceutical-grade nicotine and all-synthetic flavors that are water soluble. “Everything in there is regarded as safe,” she said.

Customer Donna Browning said she quit smoking and started vaping for her new year’s resolution. “If I run out of juice I start hankering for a cigarette,” she said Wednesday. “I ran out of juice this morning and I bought a pack of cigarettes. I smoked half of one and threw it away.”

Browning said she already prefers the e-cig to conventional cigarettes, and she prefers the sweet-flavored juices over the tobacco-flavored ones.

”I hope to use this as a step down to quitting. I’ve seen a lot of people on Facebook saying they’ve been quit for two years or more from doing this.”

Bowman recommends people start with the strongest dose of nicotine – 18 mg – and taper downward. Customers select from tobacco flavors including Lucky 13, described as similar to Marlboro or Winston cigarettes; a menthol flavor similar to Newport cigarettes; and Cavendish, similar to a Black & Mild cigar. A variety of food and drink flavors includes caramel macchiato, Twinkies, zebra-stripe chewing gum, Juicy Fruit gum, bubblegum, gingerbread cookie, strawberry cheesecake and wintergreen. Customer favorites also include Gorilla Mist, described as similar to banana nut bread, and Wild Island Dream, a coconut-pineapple concoction.

The Centers for Disease Control reported last September that the use of e-cigs among middle- and high-schoolers more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, with 10 percent of students reporting they had used them at least once. The percent of students who had used them within a month before the survey rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.

“The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., said in the report. “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.”

The CDC study did not address the rates of usage among adults or discuss the possible benefits of switching from conventional cigarettes to the electronic ones.

Anecdotally, Bowman said one of her customers is a lung patient whose doctor noted a marked improvement in her lung function about six weeks after she switched from cigarettes.

“It’s fantastic,” Bowman said. “Before now, nothing has come along for smokers that gave us hope. For every starter kit I sell, I feel like I’ve lifted a death sentence.”

Contact Bill Kimber at bkimber@dailyhome.com