The crowd is a collection of true believers. They revel in the ever-thickening haze in the small, tastefully appointed space at 723 Vapor, tricked out like a bachelor pad with cow-spotted rugs and low-slung leather chairs.
Candy-colored tubes filled with nicotine-infused liquids and gleaming metal cylinders line the walls. These are the basic supplies for vaping or using electronic, battery-powered, mist-producing cigarettes instead of traditional tobacco wrapped in paper.
This is a VapMeet — a gathering of e-cigarette aficionados. There are at least two a month at this Lexington store specializing in vaping supplies.
The gathering has the feel of a hipster wine tasting with artisanal cheese. About two dozen folks, mostly men, mostly bearded, contentedly exhale clouds of white-gray mist as they chat and share tips about their favorite flavors and devices. Many carry tackle-box-size cases neatly packed with vaping paraphernalia.
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There are contests to see who can blow the biggest cloud of vapor.
Owner Tony Florence is passionate about vaping, not just as a business but also as something close to a community service. He believes he is helping hard-core smokers embrace a healthier habit.
"I don't know any people who vape who are not former smokers," he said. "We are trying to help people kick the habit. "
Health concerns for users, others
E-cigarettes came to the United States around 2007. The first wave was what the faithful call "cig-a-like," battery-operated clones of the traditional cigarette that delivered nicotine via a vapor instead of smoke.
E-cigarettes of all kinds are now at the center of the latest battle in the smoking wars.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the use of e-cigarettes among middle and high school students has doubled in recent years to roughly 10 percent.
CDC officials paint e-cigarettes as a kind of gateway drug that will lead to traditional smoking.
According to state health officials, the number of vaping-related nicotine poisonings has doubled from 2013 to 2014. Gov. Steve Beshear signed a bill in April banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The Lexington Fayette Urban County Council is expected to take a final vote on whether to include e-cigarettes in its current smoking ban at its meeting on Nov. 13.
Vaping is estimated to be a $2.6 billion business, according to Bonnie Herzog, managing director of tobacco research for Wells Fargo Securities. E-cigarettes are expected to go mainstream in the next five years and outsell traditional cigarettes within a decade. According to Herzog, all three of the biggest members of big tobacco — Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, and Lorillard — have purchased an e-cigarette manufacturer.
A year ago there were no vape shops in Fayette County, Florence said. Now there are least six, and e-cigarettes are widely available in convenience stores.
Health officials concerned
The burgeoning market for e-cigarettes has alarmed health officials at the national and state levels. According to the Department for Public Health, 30 children and 18 adults reported nicotine exposure to poison control centers in 2013. By mid 2014, incidents of potential harmful exposure to e-cigarettes were reported for 59 kids, including 40 under the age of 2. So far in 2014, 18 adults have reported nicotine exposure to the state poison control centers.
Exposure happens in two ways, according to Public Health Commissioner Stephanie Mayfield.
First, e-cigarettes don't burn down like traditional cigarettes so people don't have a measure for how much they've smoked, which can lead to a nicotine overload.
Also, she said, the canisters containing the nicotine-filled juice are not childproof, which can lead to exposure. The juice bottles are often brightly colored and sweetly flavored, which can appeal to little children.
And, Mayfield said, aside from the immediate consequences of overexposure to nicotine such as vomiting, nausea and trouble breathing, the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are "yet to be seen."
E-cigarettes can be advertised on television, and ads like a campaign featuring actress and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy touting the Blu brand of e-cigarettes is a form of "re-normalizing and re-glamourizing of tobacco," Mayfield said.
Ellen Hahn, director of the Kentucky Center for Smoke Free Policy, believes e-cigarettes should be regulated like any other tobacco product and should easily fall under Lexington's current smoke-free policy.
They are not simply water vapor, but a visible aerosol that contains tiny polluting particles, she said.
"They are not emission free," she explained. The synthetic nicotine is 99.9 percent derived from the tobacco plant. It doesn't look like tobacco, but that's what it is, she said.
"And because it is polluting and potentially has health consequences, people should be asked to vape or e-smoke or whatever, outside," she said. "We are just saying you can't smoke and hurt other people."
Grateful for e-cigs
Chris Williams of Danville, couldn't disagree more. He is among the converted who are grateful for e-cigarettes. Williams started smoking about a pack a day when he was 18, he said.
He thinks it contributed to the heart attack he suffered in 2010 at the age of 33.
He had tried everything to quit smoking, and nothing worked until vaping. Williams, who blogs about vaping and vaping supplies at BestElectronicCigaretteBlog, considers himself not only a vaping enthusiast but an ambassador for switching from cigarettes. And he thinks vaping should be allowed in public places.
During a recent conversation, Williams repeatedly sucked on a vaping device filled with vanilla scented mist. He said he is skeptical of what he calls "science" produced by the government that shows vaping is harmful. As far as he is concerned, it has pretty much saved his life, although the Food and Drug Administration does not allow e-cigarettes to be marketed as a smoking cessation device.
Carl V. Phillips, the chief scientific officer for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, believes e-cigarettes "are contributing positively to the public health. They do serve as a substitute for smoking."
"E-cigarettes are very, very low risk," said Phillps, who works for the national non-profit that promotes e-cigarettes. "It's not clear that they are harmful at all."
Like Williams, he's not convinced there is a danger based on science.
"There is an effort by people with various motivations," to malign e-cigs, he said, "They dress up their attack on e-cigs as if they are based on science. My favorite one is to refer to some detectable level of some chemical."
Technology has improved so much in the last 15 years that you can find "a few molecules of almost anything" if you look hard enough, he said.
"The justification of banning smoking indoors does not extend to e-cigarettes," he said.
He can see limiting vaping in movie theaters and fancy restaurants, maybe. But bars, cafes and other social gathering places, he just doesn't understand why it is necessary.
In fact, the ability to not have to smoke outside is one of the reasons vapers are so zealous, he said. After years of being banished to sidewalks and outdoor smoking areas, they have literally found a way to come in from the cold. They don't want to return to feeling like second-class citizens and maybe returning to traditional cigarettes.
Businessman Florence hopes people will consider the good e-cigarettes can do.
"We need to look at it from a harm reduction standpoint."