Electronic cigarettes: the culture and the future

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The guests wore costumes, the bartender served refreshments, and a cloud hung over the room.

This was no ordinary Halloween party, instead, an example of a growing trend in Knoxville.

Several hundred people stopped by the Smoky Mountain Vaper Group's October "meet up." While cigarette users are called "smokers," the people using the electronic version call themselves "vapers."

"It's very exciting," said Glenn Cate, a former smoker-turned-vaper. "The community in this area just keeps growing and we've had a lot of support."

Cate helped host the Halloween event, and recently opened his own shop in East Tennessee: Vintage Vapors Knoxville. Like him, most of his customers have started vaping to quit smoking.

"My health was deteriorating and I needed a change. But I loved to smoke and never really thought it would work. Gave it a shot and the day I got my first starter kit I quit," he said.

Across the room, fellow business owner and former smoker Nija Walker has a similar story. After 15 years, it was a friend and an e-cig that got him to quit smoking.

"I tasted it, I loved it, I've been on electronic cigarettes ever since. I'd made a plan to quit using traditional cigarettes, but the electronic cigarettes was just my tool in order to do so."

The electronic cigarette business is booming, but its future as an industry is uncertain.

Most users switch to e-cigs as a way to quit smoking – but the products, still unregulated by the FDA, require some federal input before they can be marketed as a cessation tool.

Regulation questions

There is a strong push for the FDA to begin regulating electronic cigarettes like the agency regulates tobacco products: age restrictions, advertising rules, and a close eye on ingredients.

The Knoxville vape businesses interviewed for this story all listed just four ingredients in the device:

  • Propylene Glycol
  • Glycerol
  • Nicotine
  • Flavoring

In September, several states' attorneys general penned a letter to the agency requesting regulation in the interest of protection children from getting their hands on the devices.

Tennessee already prohibits sales to minors. At the vape meet, several vendors said federal regulations would be good thing for their industry, especially in the interest of children. In fact, many of them feel new laws wouldn't drastically change their current business practices.

"The reputable vendors, they all regulate themselves, they don't sell to anyone under 18." Cate explained. "I don't know about the convenience stores on the corner that sell them, but I can speak for the vendors here that they all police themselves. They all ask for ID."

"I do a lot of business online," added Walker. "But if there's a chance that someone 17 or younger can get a hold of my product and use it then that is a serious concern. And I'm prepared to take whatever steps I need to in order to make sure that doesn't happen."

A way to quit?

Bill Lee is the nicotine specialist at Cornerstone of Recovery. He is also the chair of Smoke Free Knoxville. Considering both roles, he has mixed opinions on the future of electronic cigarettes.

"The bottom line is we really don't understand all this yet," Lee said. "We know a lot about nicotine addiction, but the process of using these e-cigarettes is really, sort of, a brand new thing we're still trying to figure out."

Lee said even staff members at Cornerstone use electronic cigarettes. As a former smoker, himself, he is skeptical of how helpful the devices will prove to be, and if there will be long-term health impacts.

"Rather than the abstinence method where I stop everything, this is really what's called 'harm reduction.' I'm using something in place of something else. I'm using something that's less harmful than what I was using that was more harmful."

Vapers can use varying levels of nicotine in their electronic cigarettes, or none at all. Most former smokers start with a high level of nicotine, and later reduce that amount to a lower level.

"The idea is to simply use them for the short term, and self-moderate the use until there isn't any. That's the very thing the addict is incapable of doing," argued Lee. "And so the likelihood of getting off of it is really non-existent. So it becomes a replacement drug that people are probably going to -- addicts, recovering addicts -- are going to continue to use for lots and lots of years."

A new culture

As more people make the switch to electronic cigarettes, businesses and agencies will now be faced with how to handle the practice. Some have already chosen their response: The Department of Transportation does not allow the use of e-cigarettes on a plane.

Some businesses ask vapers to remain within designated smoking areas, while others allow its use indoors.

"Typically in a bar or restaurant setting I will approach the manager on duty who will be able to let me know their policy," Walker said.

"Typically outside or in a shopping, retail setting -- you just try to be respectful. And that's the approach I use and what I try to tell my customers."

He hopes education about this product will make all the difference.

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