MAIN STREET — Jeffrey Freeman was addicted to tobacco — until he found electronic cigarettes.
The battery-powered vaporizers, which deliver a form of nicotine and can mimic the feel of traditional cigarettes, are being marketed as a healthier, less difficult way to kick the tobacco habit. It’s one of the reasons why sales of e-cigs have soared from about $500 million in 2012 to an estimated $1.5 billion in 2013. That’s a fraction of the tobacco cigarette market — roughly $100 billion per year — but it reflects rapid growth, in contrast to the steady decline in traditional cigarette sales.
“Tobacco will be a thing of the past in 10 years,” Freeman said confidently Monday while “vaping” in the back office of FIX Vapor, the Main Street business he opened with his friend, Patrick Salmon, in October that sells high-end vaporizers and the “juice” cartridges that contain nicotine and various flavors like vanilla, cotton candy and straight tobacco.
Freeman and Salmon were once smokers, but found it easier to quit by using e-cigs. They have carved out a nice business for themselves in this affluent community, catering to 20-somethings who love the various flavors and customization that comes with vaping, as well as longtime smokers in their 40s who have tried everything to help them quit but believe e-cigs are the answer.
But that business could go up in smoke if Santa Monica follows the lead of other cities like New York and Los Angeles that have stepped up to regulate the use of e-cigs instead of waiting for the federal government to determine if they are a health hazard or harmless. By not allowing vaping inside bars or nightclubs, e-cig users will suffer the same fate of traditional smokers. They’ll have to leave their friends and the excitement. For some, that was the reason to get a vaporizer in the first place — to not be pushed out.
A tenants’ rights group in Santa Monica is advocating for bans on their use. Santa Monicans for Non-Smoking Renters Rights, which helped pressure the City Council into enacting some of the most comprehensive smoking bans in the country, going so far as to outlaw cigarette use in apartments, called on the Planning Commission late last month to recommend the council consider e-cigs to be as dangerous and damaging as tobacco cigarettes.
Willow Evans, a member of that group, went so far as to ask the commission to recommend creating a special category for e-cig shops like FIX Vapor, granting them permission to open only if they were located a certain distance from schools.
“It is very clear that electronic cigarettes are not safe,” Evans said.
But the truth is the health impacts are not known. Studies are being released regularly but there’s no consensus. Since the technology is new, long-term effects cannot be known.
The Food and Drug Administration intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency’s “tobacco product” authorities — which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco — to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of “tobacco product.”
The agency admits further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes.
Opponents point to some studies showing that those near people vaping can be exposed to nicotine and nanoparticles released in the vapor. One study showed the vapor contained metals like tin, copper and some nickel.
Supporters tout other studies, including one released recently which said they pose no danger to users or bystanders.
“It has always been clear that e-cigarettes were much lower risk than smoking, but there was uncertainty about whether continuing to inhale a mix of chemicals posed a measurable risk,” said Carl V. Phillips, scientific director for The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives, which promotes the availability and use of low-risk alternatives to smoking. “Even those of us who have long encouraged smokers to switch are a bit surprised that even the worst-case-scenario risks are so low. This study assures us that e-cigarettes are as low risk as other smoke-free tobacco and nicotine products, like smokeless tobacco … .”
Opponents like Evans are also concerned about the impact e-cigs have on kids and believe they will encourage them to pick up tobacco cigarettes at some point. She pointed to the various flavors available, such as Captain Crunch, named after a popular kids’ cereal.
“As an adult, am I no longer allowed to like cotton candy?” Salmon said. In liquor stores adults can purchase alcohol with cherry flavoring. Why should e-cigs be regulated more harshly, Salmon asked.
FIX Vapor does not market to children and will not allow anyone into the store who is under the age of 18, a policy created by Freeman and Salmon even though there isn’t a law requiring them to do so. They also have a strict no-tobacco rule.
They feel that part of the push to ban e-cigs is based on a lack of understanding of how the devices work and irritation. People may not appreciate someone vaping as they eat dinner at a restaurant. Vapor looks a lot like smoke and people still have that aversion like they do with traditional cigarettes.
“Don’t be obnoxious with it,” Salmon said, repeating advice he gives to customers.
“We don’t vape indoors out of respect … ,” Freeman added.
The pair believes the push to ban e-cigs is being funded by pharmaceutical companies who are fearful more smokers will make the switch and therefore not need treatment and medication for smoking-related illnesses, which can be expensive.
Freeman and Salmon said if City Hall were to regulate e-cigs, they would accept it, but only if officials can provide proof they are harmful to public health.
“You can’t just pull the mom card; ‘Because I said so,’” Freeman said.
They would also hope that their business would be allowed to remain on Main Street.
So far there are no plans to lump e-cigs in with tobacco cigarettes, city officials said, but the issue is on their radar.
In the meantime, FIX Vapor will continue recommending e-cigs to those who want to give up traditional cigarettes.
“I had a guy come in here the other day who told me that he was a two-pack-a-day smoker for 30 years,” Freeman said.
After a few days of using a vaporizer, the man returned to the store and gave Freeman a hug. He had finally quit tobacco.