Popularity of e-cigarettes gives rise to 'vaping' lounges

Judy Marcucci tries her first e-cigarette at World's Finest Vape Shop in Bridgeport, Montgomery County. More vape shops are popping up, in both city and suburbs, and governments are taking notice.
Judy Marcucci tries her first e-cigarette at World's Finest Vape Shop in Bridgeport, Montgomery County. More vape shops are popping up, in both city and suburbs, and governments are taking notice. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 28, 2014

Kyra Donaldson, a 20-year-old from Mount Laurel who takes part in the growing vaping lifestyle, thinks her cloud can match those produced by men, despite their stronger lung capacity.

And when she partakes, she often goes to Popie's Vapor Lounge in Marlton.

"I come here every day. It's relaxing. For me, it's like going to a coffee shop," she said at Popie's tasting bar, where she was with friend Duncan DiTullio, also 20 and from Mount Laurel.

She filled the canister of her "e-cig" with a menthol drip and soon was enveloped in a thick fog. It was impressive.

DiTullio did the same, puffing rings that took form before evaporating.

Once a fringe indulgence, e-cigarettes have become a more than billion-dollar business nationwide.

In the last two years, vaping lounges have sprouted in the suburbs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and in Center City and the South Street corridor.

Vaping products are in demand, and momentum is building as big tobacco companies begin investing in e-cigarettes. Some predict sales of vapor products will surpass tobacco within a decade.

Government at all levels has taken notice and has struggled to find appropriate ways to regulate and tax vaping.

New Jersey has already outlawed selling to those younger than 19, and Gov. Christie has proposed taxing vaping products at higher levels, similar to cigarettes.

This month in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter signed bills that outlaw sales to minors within the city and prohibit vaping in workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other public places.

And last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced proposed new regulations that would forbid the sale of vaping products to those younger than 18.

Though some say the FDA is moving too slowly, those who vape are less concerned.

They support regulation to make sure products are safe but feel increasing taxes would be misguided. The lifestyle, they say, does away with smoking cigarettes, which is known to cause cancer.

Vaping is considerably less expensive, and high taxes could discourage smokers from trying the alternative.

At Popie's on Wednesday, Donaldson and DiTullio were unconcerned as they sat with owner Robert Eichenberger, 38, comparing flavors and the hardware that vaporizes the nicotine solution.

Blowing vapor plumes that looked like smoke, the three were among the born-again who swear vaping allowed them to quit smoking.

"We're getting this nicotine without cigarettes, thank the Lord," Eichenberger said, arms raised. He started smoking at 14 and tried quitting for years until he started vaping. "I'm a recovering cigarette addict."

Eichenberger, who formerly owned a construction business, and his wife, Heidi, 39, a medical professional, opened Popie's more than a year ago. The foggy retreat is filled with a bouquet of sweet aromas where they educate new customers and allow them to try vaping. They have a steady flow of new and return customers, many of whom arrive at lunch or after work to vape.

"It's a new frontier. It's run by new people," said DiTullio, a critic of big tobacco.

Donaldson began vaping six months ago.

"I drip a menthol flavor, so it's minty. I feel so much healthier," she said. She enjoys cycling and said she now has more endurance.

Those at Popie's are among legions of nicotine users who say they vape to keep away from cigarettes, which stained their teeth, stressed their lungs, and left a disgusting stench on their clothing.

Christina Craine, 35, of Lindenwold, and her friend David Gordon, 47, of Collingswood, were also at Popie's last week. Gordon, a light smoker, quickly appreciated the advantages of flavor vaping.

"This is much more enjoyable," Gordon said. "I smoked a cigarette a couple of weeks ago and it was absolutely disgusting. Absolutely nauseating."

Craine is more dependent on nicotine and said she had "a moment" when her e-cigarette clogged. She bought a larger, more expensive model and keeps two less expensive backups.

Electronic cigarettes come in all sizes and colors - hot pink, sky blue, black, chrome. There are petite models that appeal to soccer moms. Designs also include skulls for the alternative crowd.

The devices use a lithium battery-operated igniter that heats the nicotine juice so the vapor can be inhaled. Users select the nicotine level they prefer. The variation of flavors seems endless, including applejack, Swedish fish, and Turkish tobacco.

John Mikhail, 29, of King of Prussia, was at the World's Finest Vape Shop in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, on Wednesday for a fruit flavor called "Dragon's Blood."

He was in the 10th day of his ninth try at quitting Newports. Although he believes vaping may be better than cigarettes, he is still concerned about the potential side effects of vaping.

Research suggests some vaping products are safer than cigarettes and can help reduce nicotine consumption, but experts warn the long-term effects are unknown.

"Anyone who is vaping may be using something harmful, or not harmful. We really can't say," said Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society.

He cited a recent New Zealand study that showed vaping may help wean smokers off cigarettes within six months with no apparent adverse short-term health effects.

Because the sale of vapor products is not strongly regulated, however, the ingredients vary significantly among manufacturers. The FDA tested some juices and found dangerous carcinogens.

The American Cancer Society does not endorse the use of e-cigarettes, pending more research.

Vape shops are now open in South Philadelphia and Center City, mostly catering to those in their 20s and 30s.

Paul Vu, manager of Vapordelphia at Ninth and South Streets, said business had been better than expected.

Darius Nguyen, a manager at the Exclusive Vape Shop on South Street, said vaping sells itself. "You're presenting a form of nicotine that is so much healthier than regular cigarettes."

Someone who smokes a pack a day might start with 18 milligrams of nicotine, while a light smoker might prefer six. Those who want to quit can slowly reduce the nicotine.

On Wednesday, Lynne Palmer, 39, of South Philadelphia, visited Exclusive Vape. She ordinarily buys online and said she started vaping for health reasons.

"I'm turning 40 this year, and one of the things I have is good skin, and that changes if you keep smoking," she said. Quitting smoking "just makes you feel a lot better. You can actually taste food now."


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

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