Monster Vape co-founder Christopher Zieg demonstrates that the plume of smoke from a vaporizer can be just as thick as tobacco cigarettes. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After a 2011 ordinance banned indoor smoking in public places around San Antonio, some smokers were left trying to find options to leave tobacco behind.  In the ensuing three years, electronic cigarettes and vaporizers have seen exponential growth around the country, with several retail outlets popping up in and around San Antonio.

Monster Vape, co-founded by Christopher Zieg, opened its doors in 2012, and in two years expanded into two more San Antonio stores and a Corpus Christi franchise.

Zieg, a former U.S. Military medic, said he knew the dangers of smoking, but had trouble quitting until he attended a concert and saw the singer vaping onstage. His personal success with quitting smoking after switching to vaping five years ago inspired him to set up shop as he finished his military service in San Antonio.

“Being a medic and seeing what e-cigs have done for me, I wanted to pass that on to other people,” Zieg said, citing a number of benefits, including a lack of tobacco smells on clothing and vehicles, better energy levels, and perhaps most importantly the fewer number of chemicals found in the fluids used in vaporizers.

Patrons at Monster Vape during a recent visit included seasoned "vapers" coming in for refills and curious new-comers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Patrons at Monster Vape during a recent visit included seasoned “vapers” coming in for refills and curious new-comers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Even Big Tobacco companies have begun to take notice in the $2.5 billion electronics market, according to a Tuesday New York Times Article. R.J. Reynolds Vapor, a subsidiary of Reynolds American, has recently announced the arrival of Vuse, which will see a wide release on June 23. Altria Group has also created a subsidiary for the vapor market dubbed Nu Mark, and plans on releasing the MarkTen by year’s end. The two brands will join Blu, which was bought by Lorillard in 2012, as electronic cigarette lines owned by major tobacco manufacturers.

No medical claims can be verified for vaporizers yet, but Zeig says there is a noticeable difference between the contents of vaporizers and tobacco. The Journal of the American Medical Association, however, did vouch for the effectiveness of vaporizers in smoking cessation in 2013. Author Anita Slomski stated it was as effective a tool as nicotine patches.

Similarly, a technical report by Igor Burnstyn, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, found the “trivial” level of toxins in vaporizers post no health risk to users.

The tanks on vaporizers are filled with a fluid known as e-juice, a mixture of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, artificial flavors, and nicotine ranging from six milligrams per milliliter to 36 milligrams per milliliter. In some cases, nicotine is not added. Vaporizer users see the small list of ingredients in e-juice as better alternative to the more than 70 carcinogenic chemicals and hundreds of toxic compounds found in tobacco.

However, nicotine remains an addictive chemical. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list nicotine dependence as the most common chemical dependence in the U.S. It can also raise blood pressure and heart rate.

At Monster Vape’s laboratory, lab technologists mix and prepare all the flavors found at Monster Vape’s stores, which Zieg says ensures quality control of their products. Christina Gann, Monster Vape’s laboratory director, said the elimination of tar is the biggest benefit to switching to vaporizers – when taking into account the 100,600 deaths from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – affect more people than smoking-related cancers do.

Devin Keo vapes at Bar America while watching the San Antonio Spurs win Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals. He went from smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day to only four per week in addition to his vaporizor. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Devin Keo vapes at Bar America while watching the San Antonio Spurs win Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals. He went from smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day to only four per week in addition to his vaporizor. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

About 12.7 million Americans affected by COPD compared to 3.4 million people diagnosed with cancers related to smoking, according to the American Cancer Society’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, though not all these cases may be attributed to smoking.  The death toll for those cancers is still higher, with 163,700 deaths from cancers recorded between 2005 and 2009, and 100,600 deaths from COPD recorded in the same time range.

“You’re almost guaranteed to have COPD if you continue to smoke as you go into old age,” she said. “That systematically destroys your lungs.”

Gann, who earned a bachelor’s of science in biology from Schreiner University, says before the switch to vaporizers, she would come down with bronchitis multiple times a year. Since quitting four years ago, she says she breathes easier and her illnesses are not as severe on her lungs.

The Government Steps In

The growth of retailers selling electronic cigarettes and the lack of regulation has drawn questions from the federal government.

In May, the Food and Drug Administration outlined a proposal to regulate electronic cigarettes and vaporizers made after 2007, which, if finalized, will redefine vaporizers as tobacco products. This would require all models of electronic cigarettes and vaporizers to pass FDA approval, manufacturers to register with the FDA and provide ingredient details, and would introduce inspections to producers of vaporizers and fluids.

The decision would also allow the FDA to collect data and information related to the flavoring of e-juices. This regulation would be in a similar vein to the Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act, which prohibited the use of flavors for cigarettes – the same flavors are common for e-juices. According to the FDA proposal, having a wide variety of flavors could draw minors to the use of vaporizers, something they intend to prevent.

Monster Vape, and most vape shops, offer hundreds of different flavors of e-fluids. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Monster Vape, and most vape shops, offer hundreds of different flavors and strengths of e-fluids. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“FDA is aware that some e-cigarettes (as well as other products that would be deemed under this proposed rule) are being marketed with flavors that may be attractive to young people,” reads an early paragraph of the proposal. Under this new jurisdiction, the FDA intends to collect data, “especially if there is evidence that these flavors make the products more attractive to children.”

The concerns expressed by FDA officials echo a report made by the CDC in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from February, which reported an increase of monthly poison center calls related to e-juices, more than half of which involved young children.

“Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue,” stated CDC Director Tom Frieden in a release. “E-cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof, and they come in candy and fruit flavors that are appealing to children.”

2006 Environmental Protection Agency report on propelyne glycol, an air disinfectant used in air disinfectants and asthma inhalers long before its use in e-juice, found the compound to not be carcinogenic, a report many enthusiasts believe vouches for the safety of secondhand vapor.

Despite the push to regulate, Zieg remains positive about the future, saying there has been too much support for electronics for any permanent damage to happen to the industry, seeing it as only getting bigger.

“It’s too late for them to truly do anything,” he said. “They could try, but there’s too much pushback for it.”

Belinda Kennedy talks with a Monster Vape employee about different nicotine milliliter options for her new vaporizer. She walked out of the store paying about $70 for a complete set including a battery, an e-juice, and the vaporizer itself. ____ is only a social smoker, "but it's enough to make me feel it the next day." She said she thinks vaporizing rules are left up to business owners to decide, not the government. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Belinda Kennedy talks with a Monster Vape employee about different nicotine milliliter options for her new vaporizer. She walked out of the store paying about $70 for a complete set including a battery, an e-juice, and the vaporizer itself. Kennedy is only a social smoker, “but it’s enough to make me feel it the next day.” She said she thinks vaporizing rules should be left up to business owners to decide – not the government. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Growing Local Regulations and Backlash from Business

While the federal government works out new rules for electronic users, several city governments have started the push to include electronics in existing anti-smoking ordinances. In December, an ordinance passed by New York City Council added vaporizers to the city’s smoking ordinance, treating them as tobacco products and prohibiting their use indoors. Similar ordinances have passed in Chicago, Los Angeles, and King County, Washington, which includes several cities, most notably Seattle.

Cities in Texas have followed suit, including Georgetown, Soccoro, and Frisco, which – like New York – amended previous ordinances, and San Marcos, which made a last-minute inclusion of vaporizers to its first smoking ordinance during its final reading, drawing criticism from shop owners.

“I just don’t think they did their research before making that decision, “ said Sharon Teal, owner of Ahh Vapors, LLC in San Marcos. She cited studies released by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association, showing e-cigarettes to be far less harmful than cigarettes.

In cities where the jury is still out on the inclusion of electronics in smoking ordinances, several businesses have introduced their own bans shutting out vaporizers. To Zieg, this will cause vaporizer users to find other businesses where they can vape.

Greg McCabe vapes in a hallway on the 10th floor of the Weston Centre still occupied by Geekdom. His flavor of choice: "Honey Perry." McCabe recently quit traditional cigarettes entirely. "Now it's hard to put this thing down," he said. "There are still side effects (from nicotine)" such as anxiety and high blood pressure. "But you don't smell like cigarettes, you don't stink." Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Greg McCabe vapes in a hallway on the 10th floor of the Weston Centre still occupied by Geekdom. His flavor of choice: “Honey Perry.” McCabe recently quit traditional cigarettes entirely. “Now it’s hard to put this thing down,” he said. “There are still side effects (from nicotine)” such as anxiety and high blood pressure. “But you don’t smell like cigarettes, you don’t stink.” Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“If you have two coffee shops and one says ‘no’ and one says ‘yes,’ the vapers are going to go where they’re allowed to do what they love,” Zieg says.

To Gann, this change is inevitable in San Antonio and across the country, though she sees big things for the vaporizer industry, and hopes the government does, too.

“If the FDA is more supportive and the government is more supportive, it will go far, and it will surpass cigarettes in the future,” she said.

*Featured/top image: Monster Vape co-founder Christopher Zieg demonstrates that the plume of water vapor from an electronic cigarette/vaporizer can be just as thick as tobacco cigarettes. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Adrian Ramirez

Editor and writer Adrian Omar Ramirez is a recent graduate of Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he was a news reporter at the University Star. A native to Abilene,...