Photos: Devin Ream
Jack Ramirez’s hands move deftly. He takes a few drops of syrupy liquid from a small brown bottle and carefully deposits them onto the cotton in his vaporizer. He then hits a switch on the side of the vape, sending a charge to the heating coils, and lifts the device to his mouth. There’s a rapidly rising hum—it sounds like a small fan—met almost instantly by a crackling, sizzling, static. Ramirez pulls in a deep breath from the vaporizer and slowly exhales a voluminous, thick cloud. The cloud drifts away and dissipates, but the flavor and scent linger. “Banana nut bread,” he says with a satisfied smile.
Ramirez, 22, has reason to smile. The University of Oregon junior started smoking cigarettes in the eighth grade, which led to a pack-a-day habit by his sophomore year of high school. In 2011, he began making efforts to quit. “I did the gum, but it made my teeth hurt,” says Ramirez. “The patches didn’t work because I was a water polo player, so I couldn’t wear them while swimming. I tried dip, but that just ruins your teeth and I didn’t want to do that. Then I tried snus, which was alright, but it tastes like tea. I almost committed to it, but then I fell into e-cigs.”
Synonymously called e-cigarettes, vaporizers, mods, or vape pens, these devices are at the center of a growing national discussion: Are they the latest remedy to cut tobacco smoking or just the next evolution of nicotine delivery systems?
Vaporizers heat e-liquid, or simply “juice,” to create a vapor that can carry levels of nicotine ranging from zero mg (e.g., to be used as a dietary supplement or for the fun of blowing clouds) to 24 mg per ml. By comparison, a typical pack of Marlboro Reds has approximately 18 mg of nicotine. Vaporizer variations have been around since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2006 that they became prevalent as more companies began marketing their own versions. More recently, significant advances in vape technology have caused a surge of smokers like Ramirez to turn to the device when trying to give up tobacco.
Ramirez is a vape crusader of sorts. He believes that vapor is less harmful than smoke and that the devices should be categorized accordingly. “You’re not combusting tobacco leaves; you’re vaporizing liquid,” he says. When Ramirez first began vaping, he used e-liquid with nicotine levels at around 18/24 mg per ml. Now, he is at 3 mg per ml. “It should be classified as a smoking cessation device, just like the patch, gum, or anything like that,” he says.
Not everyone views vaping as clearly as Ramirez does. From Washington, D.C., lawmakers to the mom-and-pop stores on Main Street that sell vape-related products, debates about its usage, its sales, and its need for regulation have increased in recent years.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to officially declare its definition of vaping, whether it’s a cessation device or another harmful method to inhale nicotine (i.e., a tobacco-like product). As a result, the vaping industry remains mostly unregulated. Without any federal guidance, some states and counties have established their own regulations, leading to a patchwork of laws and ordinances across the country. Oregon is among the states struggling to find a resolution. While lawmakers in Salem have debated statewide laws in recent months, cities and counties have gone ahead and established regulations that are inconsistent from one another.
These discrepancies stem from varying opinions on the functions vaporizers serve. Advocates for vaping say no scientific evidence exists that links vaping to long-term health problems. They also point to studies conducted by universities and centers for tobacco and nicotine research that claim vaping might be an effective way to help tobacco smokers quit. On the other side, legislators, who are entrusted to protect the welfare of citizens, must at least consider regulations if health concerns may exist. How these opposing forces work out their differences will likely determine vaping’s long-term future.
One thing that isn’t up for debate is that the vapor market is booming. Bonnie Herzog, managing director for the Tobacco, Beverage & Convenience Store Research department at Wells Fargo Securities, says, “We have been estimating the e-cig/vapor market will increase to around $3.5 billion at retail in 2015, up from $2.5 billion [in 2014].”
Colin Rau has seen firsthand the growing demand for e-cigs, and like many in the vapor industry he also asserts their value as a tobacco-cessation device. Rau owns Emerald Vapors, an Oregon-based vapor retailer with shops in Eugene, Springfield, and Portland. When you open the door to his shop on Lawrence Street in Eugene, the perfumed air of recently vaporized e-liquids is immediately noticeable. As employees answer questions and recommend devices and flavors, they occasionally take a pull from their own vaporizers, adding to the pervading scent.
Rau had smoked tobacco cigarettes since he was 15 years old. Now 35, he has been smoke-free ever since being introduced to vapor in 2012. “I think I bought one bottle of juice before I started making my own,” he says. Rau’s business produces all the e-liquids that it sells. His stock of 200-plus e-liquid custom flavors includes such popular choices as Professor P., Cloud City, and Ectoplasm.
E-liquid flavors have no shortage of interesting titles, yet the syrups themselves are typically made up of just four ingredients—all of which are easily accessible. The vegetable glycerin and food flavorings can be purchased at retailers like Walmart. And ordering propylene glycol (PG) and/or nicotine online is as simple as purchasing a song on iTunes. As for manufacturing the juice, “It’s a lot like making cookies,” Rau says. “You just pour the liquids together.”
Rau has seen his business and profits grow in an extremely short amount of time. “It’s kind of eerie actually. My financial situation has completely changed,” says Rau. “[Now] I have thirty-five people who rely on me for a paycheck twice a month.”
Rau has company; in Eugene and Springfield there are at least seven competing retailers. Meanwhile, across the U.S., there are an estimated 6,000–10,000 vapor retailers. The challenge in counting them all stems from the fact that vape products aren’t strictly sold at businesses classified explicitly as vape shops. They’re also sold at supermarkets, gas stations, head shops, and bodegas.
As the vaping industry grows, the discussions on how to regulate it become more common, especially in light of vaping’s surging popularity with a vulnerable sector of the population: the youth market.
In April 2015, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced findings from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey that showed “current e-cigarette use [at least once per month] among high school students increased from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, rising from approximately 660,000 to 2 million students.”
Oregon youth are following the national trend. According to Jonathan Modie, communications director for the Oregon Public Health Division, “A growing number of Oregon youth and young adults are using e-cigarettes, introducing the potential for life-long nicotine addiction. Current use of e-cigarettes among Oregon eleventh grade students increased from 2 percent to 5 percent, a 150 percent increase, from 2011 to 2013.”
Statistics such as those have fueled the push to regulate vaping in Oregon. In recent months, legislators in Salem have discussed a number of bills, two of which stand to cause the most immediate changes to the vaping industry. The first, House Bill (HB) 2546, defines “inhalant delivery systems” as vaporizer products; restricts sales of those products to minors; assigns the Oregon Health Authority as the regulating body for e-cigarette-associated products in Oregon; and places vaping under the Clean Air Act.
[UPDATE]: On May 11, HB 2546 passed the through the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown on May 26. The bill went into effect upon passage, but the Clean Air Act provision will be delayed until January 1, 2016 – giving time for SB 663, with its exemption, to potentially be passed first.
The second, Senate Bill (SB) 663, would require Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) licensure for all retailers that sell tobacco products or “inhalant delivery systems;” raises the legal age for purchasing either product to 21 years; and allows an exemption from the Clean Air Act for testing vape products within authorized vape shops, provided no tobacco or alcohol is sold on the premises and no person under 18 is allowed to enter. That exemption in SB 663 is an important feature for the vape industry in Oregon. Currently, vape clerks can show a prospective customer how the vaporizer works and how to use the product—such as the proper technique to fill the device with e-liquid or to replace heating coils. The clerk can also facilitate the testing of varied nicotine strength e-liquids so that users can sample flavors, allowing them to know which syrups they prefer. “When customers first come in, they say they want something that tastes like a cigarette, and I chuckle to myself,” says Amy Lapano, owner of Vapor Headquarters in Springfield. “In two or three weeks, you’re not going to want anything that tastes like a cigarette because a cigarette tastes like shit.”
To show legislators that they care about their industry and are concerned about how government officials are going to involve themselves in their businesses, vape shop owners and e-liquid manufacturers have begun to organize to represent their industry in an official capacity.
“State legislators are in the midst of passing laws about something they don’t understand,” says Northwest Vapor Association (NWVA) President Will Krause, a 68-year-old Christian minister who became involved in the industry when he began helping his son’s growing vapor business, Northwest Vapors, in Vernonia, Oregon. “I’m not against legislation; I just want it to be reasonable.”
Now that HB 2546 has been signed into law, minors will not be allowed to purchase vaping products. This will not blunt a concern among some lawmakers that believe a rise in vape usage will trigger an increase among those who have never been addicted to cigarettes. But Krause says most in his industry didn’t sell their products to minors before the new law took effect. “That’s hogwash,” says Krause. “Our business has always been based on helping smokers get off of cigarettes and onto a product that’s healthier for them. We do not target kids under 18, and we never will. But the logic behind saying it’s a gateway—it’s just the opposite. It’s a way of getting off of cigarettes and using a product that’s much healthier and safer for you.”
Overall cigarette sales in Oregon have fallen 52 percent since 1997. Policies that prohibit where smoking can take place are often credited with contributing to the decline. But e-cigarette and vapor industry advocates say that at least a part of that reduction is a result of adult tobacco users switching to vapor. “I have 65-year-old men who have put their cigarettes down and can hike and go hunting again and do the things they haven’t been able to do in a lot of years,” says Lapano.But aside from keeping vaporizers out of minors’ hands, legislators are also concerned about whether vaping actually is an effective and healthier alternative to cigarettes. John Lively, an Oregon State representative, is among the legislators who voted in favor of HB 2546. “I’ve talked to people who vape—trying to get off of cigarettes—and I believe what they’re telling me: That it does work, and it does help them,” he says. “But the problem is that we don’t have any real data at this point that proves or disproves it.”
Yet according to a 2013 study published in the medical journal The Lancet, “E-cigarettes, with or without nicotine, were modestly effective at helping smokers to quit,” and the efficacy of an e-cigarette as a cessation aid was similar to a nicotine patch, an FDA-approved cessation device. Likewise, studies from the University of Oklahoma’s Tobacco Research Center in 2013 and the Minnesota Department of Health in 2014 both found that e-cigarettes were the most commonly used cessation method among tobacco smokers in those states.
This doesn’t necessarily clear the air, however. Most e-liquids still have nicotine in them at varied and unregulated strengths. And people who, in many cases, don’t have degrees in chemistry or medicine are manufacturing these liquids without supervision. Nevertheless, the officially unapproved value of an e-cigarette as a cessation aid and the usefulness of the vape shop clerk in facilitating the purchase of vaping hardware are clear indicators that the industry has some clout. Now, for the vape industry, it’s simply a matter of convincing Oregon Legislators and forging a path that satisfies all concerns on both sides.
Like the cloud it produces, vaping’s future will likely remain in the air for some time. But for now there is one certainty: Jack Ramirez says he will continue to use his vape unabated. “If there was definitive proof, and it was from an unbiased source and everybody said, ‘Yep, [vaping] is worse [than smoking],’ then I’d look at the evidence and measure both [cigarettes and vapor],” he says. “But in the end, I’d probably try to quit both, realizing that it’s bad all around. It’s just that knowing how bad cigarettes were for me makes me never want to go back to smoking.”