The small, rudimentary sign for Calhoun Vapor, an e-cigarette store in Uptown New Orleans, is hard to see at first glance. It slumps against the lower corner of the store’s front window in what seems to be a nod to the inchoate nature of the two-week-old business.
Inside, the walls are barren, except for portraits of celebrities like Jimi Hendrix exhaling plumes of smoke. Music trickles out of a silver laptop. Behind a wooden bar, there are shelves full of tiny vials of nicotine-infused liquid, with labels like “Space Jam” and “Cosmic King.”
“I got off cigs about two years ago, and I was just profoundly grateful,” the store’s owner, Holland Counce, 25, said Thursday as he exhaled a cloud from a silver vaporizer the size of an electric toothbrush. “Two weeks later, I was on a treadmill for the first time in years.”
Counce, who recently graduated from UNO and had considered becoming a stockbroker, is one of a growing number of New Orleanians who have dumped traditional cigarettes for e-cigarettes.
He’s also representative of a raft of entrepreneurs, many former smokers, who are attempting to cash in on the ballooning e-cigarette craze that is taking hold in the city and the nation.
Though there’s no official tally of how many e-cigarette stores exist in the New Orleans area, store owners estimate there are about a dozen. At least three have opened in the past month, and industry stakeholders say they expect the stores to proliferate as the market for e-cigarettes expands.
Though e-cigarettes use a range of ingredients, they typically consist of a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavoring and nicotine. The ingredients are heated by a battery-powered device into a vapor that’s inhaled into the lungs.
The products, heralded by enthusiasts as a wonder substance capable of helping smokers quit traditional cigarettes, have been targeted for regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and decried as unsafe by some anti-smoking organizations.
New Orleans has been, by most accounts, late to the e-cigarette trend — in part because traditional cigarettes are still relatively common here — but it’s now following the path of many other cities across the nation that have been inundated by e-cigarette enterprises ranging from boutique tasting bars to large-scale stores.
‘A life-changing event’
It’s hard to spend five minutes inside an e-cigarette or “vape” store without hearing a testimonial from someone about how happy quitting cigarettes has made him.
Jeff Weber, 37, the owner of the Vaping Tiger in Metairie, is no exception.
“It was a life-changing event,” Weber said of his switch to e-cigarettes a few years ago. A pack-a-day smoker since he was a kid, the Metairie native and graduate of Rummel High School got turned on to e-cigarettes while living in California.
Weber, who previously worked as a photography professor, decided he wanted to operate a store in his hometown.
The Vaping Tiger opened about a month ago. Weber said he was prepared to lose money for the first few months, but he’s been surprised at how quickly the business has grown. “I’m $20 short of breaking even,” he said of his finances for his first month.
Weber’s shop features a “tasting bar,” where vapers can peruse dozens of nicotine flavors ranging from chocolate-covered strawberry to the fruity-tasting Crescent City Cocktail.
The establishment feels more like a cocktail lounge then a smoke shop, and the three customers hanging out at the bar on a recent weekday raved about how much better they felt vaping instead of smoking.
“I gagged,” Adam Rogers, 27, said of what happened when he recently tried to smoke a tobacco cigarette.
Rogers said he was smoking two to three packs a day when he quit; now he’s playing beach volleyball, something he said would have been impossible before.
Weber and other owners of vape shops are careful not to say their products are smoking-cessation tools, as the efficacy of e-cigarettes in quitting smoking has yet to be studied by the FDA. But most e-cigarette users make the switch because they’re trying to escape the tar and carcinogens of typical cigarettes and perceive vaping to be a healthier habit.
According to Weber, the liquid is available in numbered strengths ranging from 24 — about the strength of a cigarette — to nicotine-free, allowing smokers to taper down.
“I will slowly step them down until they’re at a comfortable level,” he said.
He said vaping is also significantly cheaper than smoking.
However, what’s unclear is whether many smokers eventually abandon their nicotine addiction or just trade one method of delivery for another one.
Anthony Kolesa’s business card reads “No Smoke King,” and the 35-year-old owner of Smokecignals, which operates a store in Hollygrove, claims to have opened the first vape shop in the city in December 2012.
At his store, customers can watch their juice get custom-mixed by one of the many “juice monkeys.” They can also peruse a copy of Vape magazine while enjoying an e-cigarette in a small lounge area.
Kolesa has 20 employees and said his monthly revenue is 14 times what it was when he started. He’s got a second store in Baton Rouge, is considering opening a third in either Slidell or Destrehan, and also sells the e-cigarette juice he manufactures online.
“You can’t go out now without seeing somebody with an e-cigarette,” Kolesa said. A former smoker for 17 years, he’s now rarely without his vaporizer in tow and has about 20 of them at home.
Kolesa frames his business as a righteous one.
“Most of us, we’re smokers who started using these products and felt like they changed our life,” he said.
Kolesa’s employees are mostly vapers too, and some have found a community within those who use e-cigarettes.
Tallyn Oleal, 45, who works at the store, said he started vaping a year ago. He had been smoking a pack and a half a day for 20 years and had just suffered a heart attack when he made the switch.
“The doctor told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,’ ” he said.
Oleal custom-builds his own accessories and even hangs out with other vapers via social media.
“There is a culture to it; we’re a sort of vapor society. We all like to show people what we build,” Oleal said.
For business owners, the growing number of patrons is one of the reasons that the industry is seen to have such promise. Recent estimates peg the e-cigarette market as a $2 billion business, and some forecasts suggest it may eclipse traditional cigarettes in the future.
David Reich, 28, who two weeks ago opened up Crescent City Vape on Magazine Street with partners, said his interest was piqued by the strong financial outlook of the industry.
“From a business perspective, it’s a really exciting space and growing rapidly,” Reich said. He said his company opened its doors after only a month of planning.
But with regulation from the FDA pending and states across the nation beginning to crack down on e-cigarettes, some think the gold rush of the previously unregulated industry could be coming to an end soon.
“The FDA could shut down the party real fast,” Counce said.
Vendors could face regulation from the state as well. The Louisiana House unanimously passed House Bill 1264, which would outlaw the sale of electronic cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 491, which would prohibit patrons from smoking e-cigarettes in restaurants, has yet to move out of committee.
Meanwhile, concerns are mounting about the lack of long-term studies on the health effects of the products. A group of eight U.S. senators wrote a letter to the FDA on Friday asking it to investigate research by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute that e-cigarettes may get hot enough to produce toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.
Marketing to youths
In an interview Friday, Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy of the American Lung Association, said her group doesn’t consider e-cigarettes to be a smoking cessation product.
“The bottom line is that they are tobacco products. They are not safe and effective at making smokers quit,” she said.
Sward said many of the larger e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies, which are “dusting off their 1970s playbook” to use celebrity spokesmen and bright colors to market them to young people.
“Nobody could say with a straight face that we’re using Captain Crunch and Cotton Candy to appeal to adults,” Sward said of the fruity flavors the industry offers.
And while most e-cigarette vendors say they feel their products are far healthier than cigarettes, one local vendor said his motive is not a moral one.
“This is an unregulated industry, and I’m pretty much selling people drugs,” he said, asking that his business not be named. “Nicotine is a drug, it’s addictive, and I’m selling it to people.”