Waiting to exhale

E-cigs, lounges and labs. As Sac's vaping industry heats up, will regulation efforts sound an alarm?

VaPour House employee Ashley Jones at the Capitol Vape Meet at BarWest in March.

VaPour House employee Ashley Jones at the Capitol Vape Meet at BarWest in March.

photo by lovelle harris

BarWest’s air looms thick and humid on a recent Sunday afternoon. The inside of the Midtown bar smells like candy, cigars and menthol, and the room’s suffused with a smoky haze as several people crowd into one corner, watching a young woman named Emily participate in a “cloud competition.”

Emily inhales deeply and then spews a 5-foot plume of smoke across the room. The crowd emits a collective “ooh” with an intensity that suggests both shock and respect.

“Did you hear?” she says later to a friend, barely able to contain her excitement. “I got third!”

Emily’s not the winner today, but the crowd still cheers with wild enthusiasm for every contestant—including the eventual champion, a young man who goes by the name Chewbacca. While each contestant seems to have produced the same 5 feet of smoke, the three contest judges still award Chewbacca first place.

Maybe it’s the name.

Technically, however, this isn’t smoke, because e-cigarettes, or e-cigs, don’t burn anything. Instead, they heat a flavored liquid-nicotine solution until it turns into vapor.

And the crowd here today proves just how popular it’s become in Sacramento over the last year. Several hundred have turned up for the first Capitol Vape Meet, and the scene seemingly represents the entire cross section of Sacramento’s vaping community: a multiethnic crowd of mostly young 20- and 30-somethings, and a few older folks, too. A young man sporting a chest-length beard sits on the bar’s patio, smoking a large e-cigarette. Others wear T-shirts that read “Eat. Drink. Vape.” Elsewhere, a middle-aged couple peruses free samples of liquid vapor—or e-juice—with names like Hawaiian Sunshine and Purple Mist. Upstairs, young men and women blow clouds of steam while playing beer pong. It looks like any really hip frat party.

A hip party that Sacramento’s crashing pretty late.

“Vaping has been around for a while, [but] this is new to Sacramento,” says VaPour House co-owner Sam Chao.

For years now, big and small businesses worldwide, including tobacco companies, have been jumping into the fray to cash in on the growing trend. Dozens of Sacramento-area e-cig businesses opened in the past few years, and venues such as Vapor Parlor, Vapor Lounge and The Vapor Spot v5.0 are popular hangouts. But governments are still working out how to regulate it, and researchers are still studying possible health risks.

All the while, Sacramento’s growing e-cig community steams forward.

Triumph of the quitters

VaPour House can be hard to find, but many locals who vape know about it. It’s located behind and connected to Pour House, the Midtown bar and restaurant owned by Trevor Shultz, who also co-owns the vaping spot with Chao. Like its neighbor, VaPour House has a few beer taps. But most who sit at its wooden bar instead sample one of 107 e-juice flavors on a midweek afternoon. A guy at the bar points out that in a glass case in the corner, there’s a shiny new Zodiac, an e-cigarette model from Korea, and also a Poldiac, from Greece. The most expensive one, the Hammer, sells for $265.

Chao’s been busy running the venue since its soft opening in October 2013. After a meeting, he barely has a chance to talk during a vape break before his phone starts vibrating again. In a few minutes, he’ll grab the phone, sell a handful of e-cig parts, and type the order into a computer. Then he’ll instruct another employee on how to train a newly hired e-juice “vape-tender.”

But first, he takes intermittent puffs of an e-cig and glances at his phone while describing the first time he tried it. Chao was once a social smoker. But he says that changed about a year-and-a-half ago.

“When I discovered vaping, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says. “I don’t smoke much, but I’d rather vape, because I feel better vs. smoking, and I wake up feeling great.”

Jef Guerrero (a.k.a. DJ Mos Jef) exhales an e-cigarette at VaPour House.

photo by lovelle harris

The history of vaping is as murky as the steam it produces.

According to Chao and various articles, it was a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik who invented e-cigs in 2003. The Los Angeles Times reported that Hon’s dad died of cancer, and he wanted to help others break the habit. He patented the invention in the same year, and is now CEO of a multimillion-dollar Chinese company that produces them.

Still, others point out that Herbert A. Gilbert first patented a battery-powered “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” in 1963, but the product was never successfully commercialized.

Whatever the origin, they didn’t become popular until battery technology helped make e-cigs easier to use. They flooded Asian and European markets in the mid and late 2000s before hitting the United States. Now, e-cigs are nearly a $1.5 billion industry globally, according to a February article in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Of course, that pales in comparison to the tobacco industry, which generates about half-a-trillion dollars annually, according to the same article. Several big tobacco companies such as Lorillard Tobacco Company, Altria Group and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company are now starting to produce e-cigs, too.

But it’s not only attracting customers who are trying to quit smoking. Data from the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that use of e-cigarettes more than doubled among middle-school and high-school youth from 2011 to 2012. Yet, during the same time period, the number of young tobacco smokers decreased. Still, in total, the study estimated that 1.78 million students used an e-cig in 2012. And if the trend continues, that number will grow in the next report.

“It’s picking up,” says Chao.

Quitters and students certainly aren’t the only ones buying into the e-cig trend. At Vapor City on Auburn Boulevard in Sacramento, manager Alex Feirman says he once had an obese customer come in for a specific flavor of e-juice to help curb her appetite. That’s rare, though.

One afternoon, a man with a leathery, prematurely wrinkled face, sleeveless T-shirt and a gritty, deep voice enters the store and asks Feirman for a bottle of e-juice.

“How long’s that lasting you?” says Feirman.

“Not very long,” says the customer.

Feirman instructs him to turn the power of the e-cigarette down to a smaller voltage and take drags less often. That way he can eventually use less nicotine.

The man says he’s a lifelong smoker trying to quit. Later, Feirman says most customers are like him.

But there’s a completely different type of e-cig consumer at the Capitol Vape Meet where the average attendees are mostly young, certainly not old enough to be lifetime smokers yet. This group is a relatively new subculture of nonsmokers that generally use zero-nicotine e-juice, explains Chao. Though many of them normally communicate and trade products via online forums and social networks, many here are getting a first chance to buy and trade e-cigs in person.

“It’s a lifestyle for them. It’s a hobby,” says Chao. “It’s a crew that’s got members now. It’s a culture.”

Plus, they don’t use mainstream “disposable” e-cigs like Blu or Njoy. Or even intermediate e-cigs like eGo or Vision. Many of these young vape enthusiasts use advanced e-cigs called “mods” (short for modifications) or “unicorns,” which are generally thicker, contain custom metal elements and emit much more vapor.

Yes, of course the nascent world of vaping even has its own slang.

A crowd gathers in the corner of the room at BarWest to watch a cloud competition at the Capitol Vape Meet.

photo by jonathan mendick

At the very least, e-cig advocates say it’s a culture of young people that would otherwise pick up a cigarette.

The juice craze

VaPour House is the only store within a 25-mile radius to carry a line of e-juice manufactured by the Lincoln-based company Luxe Liquid Vapors. Run by Zach and Karra Lefler, it’s the largest e-juice maker in town and supplies liquid vapor to more than two-dozen e-cig shops nationally.

They’re currently in the process of moving into a new 2,500 square-foot space about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. And they’re experiencing a 450-percent growth rate per month, according to Karra, who operates the business end of the company and goes on sales runs.

One Sunday afternoon in March, Karra leads a tour of the facility. She wears a white lab coat, has long blond hair, and sports a colorful mosaic tattoo of skulls, flowers and flames on her right arm. Zach, a tall man with a well-manicured beard and friendly South Carolina accent, says everyone who enters the lab must also wear a lab coat.

Hundreds of bottles sit across across a wall, all organized by nicotine content: 6 milligrams on the left, 12 in the middle and 18 on the right. Each group contains dozens of flavors. Several companies make formulas that contain up to 36 milligram nicotine content e-juice, but Luxe doesn’t because the Leflers say they don’t want to cause harm—once a friend was hospitalized for nicotine poisoning with symptoms that included a nausea and a racing heart after using a different company’s e-juice.

“It’s basically overdosing on nicotine,” says Zach. “If it’s severe enough, it could cause a heart attack.”

Zach also points out that Luxe products use organic nicotine and food flavoring, and organic, kosher-certified vegetable glycerin. The other ingredient is propylene glycol.

After the tour, the pair sits down with six cartridges of Luxe e-juice flavors at an office table, one room over from the laboratory. Here, Zach drips e-juice onto the heating coil of a shiny metal e-cig. It’s a flavor sampling. A glossy sheet of paper that looks like a wine menu shows four categories: fruity, savory, menthol and tobacco. The top seller, a fruity one called Purple Mist, is “a combination of pomegranate and blueberry,” says Zach. The second most-popular, a savory named Adonis, is described as “banana bread.” They taste exactly as advertised.

It all started back when Zach decided to quit smoking in 2011. He was a chain-smoker, and says he quit a pack-a-day habit within four days of switching to an eGo e-cig. A month later, Karra also quit her tobacco-cigarette habit in three days. They’d tried many other conventional ways of quitting, but only e-cigs did the job.

“It’s a mind game when you’re quitting,” says Karra. “You really have to be on top of the thoughts that are going through your mind … without panicking and [getting] stressed out dropping all this nicotine. If you do it the right way of tapering down, you can get down really quickly.”

Soon after they quit, friends and family began asking to help them order e-cigs. That’s when they knew they had a business idea.

They started an online e-cigarette and e-juice distribution company. One day, Karra discovered a flavor she really liked, but it was made in China, and she couldn’t find out what was in it. So she asked Zach—who spent 12 years training as a chef in North and South Carolina before joining the military and moving to Northern California—to replicate it.

He did it on the first try.

The couple stopped distributing e-cigs and launched Mad Hatter Vaping in November 2012. The company quickly expanded and, with the help of silent investors, launched Luxe Liquid Vapor in November 2013 at VaPour House’s grand opening.

Now, the company has eight employees—although Zach’s still the only one making the e-juice—expanding from its original 450-square-foot shop to the current, much larger space.

Luxe’s vinyl laboratory floors are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, and the climate-controlled room runs high-efficiency particulate absorption—or HEPA—air filters. Absolutely no vaping is allowed in the lab. No one asked or required the Leflers to do any of this. The entire e-juice industry is still, for the most part, self-regulated.

Karra Lefler displays her company’s—called Luxe Liquid Vapor—products at the Capitol Vape Meet.

photo by jonathan mendick

“You get a lot of pop-ups … [who’ve] walled off [a] garage and turned it into a lab,” says Zach.

The Leflers also claim they’ve heard of studies about some e-juice products having possibly dangerous chemicals such as triacetin, so they make sure to stay away from using that.

“They are finding trace elements of this and that, but it’s so small that you’re going to breathe it in somewhere [else], so it’s not going to be damaging to be around it,” Zach says.

On the other hand, they praise Johnson Creek Enterprises, a Wisconsin-based company certified by the International Organization for Standardization as a “quality management system” but still in the process of gaining Food and Drug Administration approval.

Even though no e-juice company has yet to earn an FDA approval stamp, the Leflers maintain it’s still safer with fewer chemicals than smoking cigarettes—both first- and secondhand.

“You’re still doing much better than smoking a cigarette,” says Karra.

Just do the math, Zach adds.

“You figure there’s on average 16,000 chemicals per cigarette, and in the juice we make, [there are] zero,” he says. “Yes, you’re still getting nicotine. But there are worse things for your body.”

Clouding the room

Talk to anyone who smokes an e-cigarette, and he or she will probably tell you the same thing: It’s a lot less dangerous than smoking.

“Super safe,” says Chao. “Ask Hon Lik. … His whole intention was to invent something to protect the public from cigarettes.”

Still, most researchers don’t want to jump to conclusions quite so fast. Michael Schivo, assistant professor of internal medicine at UC Davis and author of an October 2013 scientific review, said in a recent press release that no nicotine product should ever be considered safe.

“There isn’t enough research yet on the comparative risks or benefits of e-cigarettes, making it difficult to have meaningful conversations with patients about whether or not they are appropriate alternatives to conventional cigarettes,” he said in the press release.

Yet, the FDA has long classified the two main e-juice ingredients—vegetable glycerin, commonly used as a food sweetener, and propylene glycol, used as a food solvent— as “generally recognized as safe.” Some doctors also say e-cigs are just as safe as other smoking-cessation options.

Government entities are still looking for more research, too. But that hasn’t stopped them from starting to regulate them anyway in an effort to prevent possible health risks.

In the past month, the cities of Davis and Rancho Cordova drafted legislation to ban them everywhere cigarettes are banned. The cities of Folsom, Roseville and Sacramento are also looking into e-cigs, but don’t have any concrete timelines on any regulations.

However, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen may eventually take on the issue. He’s currently working on an ordinance to ban cigarettes on restaurant patios in an effort to protect outdoor diners and workers in the food-service industry. But while Hansen says he’s heard complaints about e-cigarettes and is researching them, he’s not sure if he’s ready to include them in his ordinance.

The vaping tools of the trade: vaporizer cartridges and bottles of e-juice.

photo by lovelle harris

At the same time, Hansen says he understands the concern.

“Allowing e-cigarettes where other smoking is prohibited leads to confusion that undermines smoke-free policies, and potentially harmful effects from secondhand exposure remain,” said Hansen. “It is something we are looking at closely.”

Several Bay Area cities, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City have passed laws that restrict vaping in public. Meanwhile, the FDA is gathering “voluntary reports” of e-cigs’ adverse effects, and intends to regulate it as a tobacco product, according to the organization’s website. However, unlike tobacco products, e-cig advertising is still unregulated. Hence television advertisements for Blu e-cigarettes featuring Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy.

Many states—including California, Washington and Arizona—have already banned sales to minors, but others, such as Oregon, Nevada and Montana, still allow them. Regardless, a kid in Sacramento can still easily get an e-cig legally online—a loophole that California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson aims to close with Assembly Bill 1500, proposed in January.

“Because there is no physical presence of the seller with the buyer, it’s easy for a young person who is not legally eligible to buy tobacco products or e-cigarettes to do so,” he said during a press conference announcing the bill. “A.B. 1500 will make it impossible for young people to order e-cigarettes or other tobacco products online, thereby safeguarding them from the dangers of smoking.”

Many local businesses are already wary of selling to minors and regularly card buyers. Chao and others in the industry say they welcome testing and regulation in order to protect the public’s health.

“We actually want regulations,” says Zach Lefler.

Karra agrees: “Because it would get rid of the other companies that are putting crummy stuff in their liquid.”

If and when national regulations come, the Leflers are confident they’ll pass. They’d apply for FDA certification now, they say, but it’s an expensive process. In the end, they want e-cigs to be seen how they view them: a safe way of quitting smoking.

“We’re trying to get away from this stigma,” says Karra. “It’s not smoke. It’s vape. It’s steam.”

E-smoking allowed

Although Sacramento’s vaping industry isn’t quite as big as others, it’s definitely growing. From the Capitol Vape Meet, a few people wander down J Street to Vapor Spot—part of a chain of Los Angeles-based vapor bars—holding its soft opening on the same day. The Leflers estimate it’s joining a group of about 50 or 60 related businesses already in the Sacramento area.

Vaping has its allies, too. Some local businesses such as Folsom Lake Bowl Entertainment Center display signs that read “Smoking prohibited, e-smoking allowed.” BarWest, on the other hand, doesn’t usually allow vaping inside because, according to a security guard, “people don’t like getting smoke blown in their face.”

“What it comes down to is etiquette,” says Karra. “If you’re sitting down having dinner, unless it’s advertised that vaping is OK, don’t use your e-cig and blow the biggest cloud of smoke that you can.”

But the question remains: What happens next with regulation?

No one knows for sure. But Chao thinks the e-cig trend will survive. He reasons that people who are trying to quit smoking will keep using them, even if they’re banned in public places along with cigarettes. Everyone will easily adapt, and vaping culture will persist, he says. Meanwhile, the industry will pump out newer and better e-cigs.

“Now they have an [e-cig] device that has Bluetooth … [and] it connects to your phone, so if you’re vaping and your phone’s going off, you hit a button, and you can talk and vape at the same time,” says Chao.

He’s excited about the prospects.

“I’m looking to be around this industry for a long time.”