Electronic cigarettes, a smoking hot national trend, have found their way to Galveston County and the Clear Lake area, where retailers are setting up shops to tap into a $1 billion market.
How hot is the market? Cindy Milina and Steve Salisbury opened Island Vaporium at 2001 61st St. in 2013. Less than a year later, they opened Island Vaporium downtown. E-cigarettes helped Milina and Salisbury kick their traditional tobacco habit, they said.
E-cigarettes, which are odorless, were invented in 2003 and still only represent 1 percent of the $80 billion U.S. cigarette market, according to reports. Still, they have a lot of growth potential, analysts have said. But with popularity, comes closer scrutiny and calls for regulation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to set marketing and product regulations for electronic cigarettes in the near future. And e-cigarette retailers worry these prosperous days could all go up in smoke. But for now, almost anything goes.
“Right now, it’s the wild, wild west,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, told the The Associated Press in an interview last year.
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices made of plastic or metal that heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale. Users get their nicotine without the thousands of chemicals and tar of regular cigarettes. And they get to hold something shaped like a cigarette, while puffing and exhaling something that looks like smoke.
Electronic cigarettes, meant to replace real cigarettes, are marketed as safe. Real cigarettes contain nicotine and 7,000 or so other chemicals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, food flavoring, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin. But as e-cigarette retailers proliferate, their products increasingly are coming under scrutiny by health care providers and regulators.
Brett Fuller, co-owner of VaporSense in League City, said vaping, as it’s called, is an incredibly effective way to wean off tobacco.
“It’s a nicotine delivery device,” he said. “We can’t say it is a smoking cessation device. It’s an alternative. For those who want to keep smoking, who want to stop dying.”
Fuller said he will sign and date the last packs of cigarettes customers bring in when they decide to switch to e-cigs as a way to display their success.
There are four VaporSense shops in Texas with a total 23 employees.
While the FDA grapples with how to regulate e-cigarettes, some communities are passing laws that ban the use of e-cigarettes in every place where smoking is prohibited, such as restaurants, bars and within 20 feet of entrances, according to reports.
Fuller doesn’t agree with prohibiting vaping in public places, but he says he understands why some businesses don’t allow it.
“The ones they are addressing are the cloud vaporers,” he said. “They are trying to draw attention to themselves.”
Sam Grizzaffi opened Firehouse Vapors in Kemah earlier this year after his online vaping business flourished.
Grizzaffi, also a former smoker, said he feels better snuffing out traditional cigarettes and his shop has been well received.
“Every week it gets better and better and better,” Grizzaffi said. “It’s constantly going.”
One reason the sale of electronic cigarettes has skyrocketed is that it’s new and people don’t know what risks, if any, are involved, Maher Karam-Hage, medical director for the tobacco treatment program in the Behavioral Science Department at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said.
“What we don’t know really is what kind of harm e-cigs would implicate in the long-term use,” Karam-Hage said. “That’s part of the problem.
“We don’t have enough research yet. It is true that it is less harmful, but we don’t know for a fact that it’s harmless.”
E-cigarettes could successfully be used as a deterrent to smoking, but there are risks, Karam-Hage said.
“A major problem is you give smokers an alternative to use indoors,” Karam-Hage said. “Instead of persuading them to quit, it may enable them to smoke anytime.”
Much more research needs to be done to know the true consequences of smoking electronic cigarettes, said Karam-Hage, who supports government regulation and standards in the industry.
E-cigarette starter kits usually run between $30 and $100. The estimated cost of replacement cartridges is about $600, compared with the more than $1,000 a year to feed a pack-a-day tobacco cigarette habit, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.
Most everyone agrees that e-cigs are safer and cheaper than traditional cigarettes.
“I see this as the future of smoking,” Milina said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.