Popularity of "E-cigarettes" grows in Pinellas, U.S.
ST. PETERSBURG - On one end of Vapor Road, shop owner Lisa Brothers talked with a customer about different electronic cigarette vaporizers. On the other, two tourists - a mother and daughter from New York - stood at three tables filled with 150 colorful vials of "e-juice," comparing notes on the flavors they'd tried. "Try voodoo, try voodoo!" said a little girl with the pair, as the women traded puffs of many of the nicotine-laced juices, which come in flavors such as Snickers, hazelnut coffee and piña colada. Sales of electronic cigarettes are surging across the country and in Pinellas County, driven by their increased visibility in the market, people's desire to quit using tobacco products and convenience - You can "vape" almost anywhere, and it doesn't make you smell bad. In 2011, about 21 percent of adult smokers said they had used e-cigarettes, up from 10 percent the year before, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported this year. E-cigarette sales are expected to hit $1 billion this year, doubling 2012's sales, according to the Wall Street Journal.That trend is evident locally. The Asylum Sights and Sounds record shop on Central Avenue has been selling e-cigarettes for five years and has seen a gradual increase in sales that has picked up recently, store manager John Harris said. E-cigarettes can now be bought at flea markets, convenience stores, malls, online, tobacco and specialty shops. Even some restaurants, such as Engine No9 downtown, are selling them. Stores specializing in e-cigarettes have been popping up, too, including Vapor Road, which Brothers opened about a month ago on Tyrone Boulevard, and Lizard Juice, which opened in Seminole in October, added a St. Petersburg location a month ago and plans to expand into Clearwater soon. "At first, it was a little slow to get going; but after a few months, we just started doubling each month, sales-wise," said Nick Schaeperklaus, a partner with Lizard Juice. "Now we have a UPS-sized truck wrapped with our logo." Even the big tobacco companies are taking notice. Last month, the Altria Group, which makes Marlboro, announced plans to start producing and selling e-cigarettes in August. E-cigarettes, which have been on the market since 2004, are battery-powered devices that convert liquid into a vapor for people to inhale. The liquid consists of nicotine often dissolved in propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin and with added flavoring. It lets the user inhale a hit of nicotine, as with a cigarette, but it doesn't produce smoke or ash or a lingering smell. A 10-mililiter jar of e-juice can last a user as long as a couple of weeks, while the battery lasts for about six hours of "vaping" time. Most of Brothers' customers come into Vapor Road because they want to quit smoking, she said. Many have already tried nicotine patches, gum and lozenges. "People want to quit. They just can't," Brothers said. "This has given them an opportunity to do something different and healthier for themselves." Some customers are even referred by doctors, nurses, substance abuse centers or their employers, she said. Officially, though, health care and stop-smoking programs warn against e-cigarettes. Health professionals are wary of the growing popularity of e-cigarettes. While many users praise their effectiveness in helping people quit cigarettes, they are not FDA-regulated, may contain harmful chemicals and may make young people more likely to try tobacco products, according to the Food and Drug Administration. "It's definitely not recommended," said Claudia Quinones, a tobacco-cessation specialist for the Gulfcoast North Area Health Education Center. "They haven't been studied enough. There are just too many unknowns." E-cigarettes come with different levels of nicotine, and some have no nicotine at all. Brothers now uses e-juice with a low level of nicotine, and she encourages her customers to reduce their addictions. People such as Eva Smith, an employee at Vapor Road who has never smoked, use e-juice with no nicotine as a hobby, partly because they enjoy the various flavors. Brothers said she hasn't touched - or wanted - a real cigarette since she started smoking e-cigarettes eight months ago. She loves the changes she has noticed in herself. "You see a difference in your skin. Your taste buds come back. You can smell again," she said. "And you're breaking all of those habits you had for 40 years." Melissa Cassidy, 41, of St. Petersburg, smoked for 15 years but decided to try e-cigarettes six months ago. The brand she was using, though, was too similar to real cigarettes, and she found it easy to go back and forth between the two. She bought a different type of vaporizer three months ago and hasn't had a real cigarette since, she said. "It feels like I have a third lung - like I can breathe again," she said. [email protected] Twitter: @saradrumm