published Sunday, September 29th, 2013

'Vaper': E-cig users see them as a less-harmful alternative

Vintage Vapors employee Brandon White blows smoke from an e-cig.
Vintage Vapors employee Brandon White blows smoke from an e-cig.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
  • photo
    E-cigs, such as this Rio model, can be customized.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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Anatomy of a Vaporizer

The vaporizer is a device consisting of a battery and a heating element. When activated, the heating element boils a small amount of liquid in the device, creating a vapor, which is then inhaled by the user.

Tube: the main console of the vaporizer.

Battery: housed power source usually charged through a USB.

Cartridge: component that houses the e-juice.

Atomizer: heats up the e-juice and creates the vapor that’s inhaled and exhaled.

Cartomizer: combination of the atomizer and cartridge in one.

E-Juice / E-Liquid: water-based liquid that contains the nicotine. Comes in a variety of flavors or just plain. Four main ingredients: Nicotine, Propylene glycol, Vegetable glycerine, Flavoring - all of which show no evidence of being a carcinogen.

Tip: end where the vaporizer is inhaled.

Source: www.vapingapela.com

As Dimitris Agrafiotis approached his 39th birthday, the age his father died of a heart attack, he wanted desperately to end his 20-year smoking habit.

He'd tried everything to quit over the years, including acupuncture, meds, patches, gum and hypnosis. Nothing worked.

Then about five years ago, he tried his first electronic cigarette; he hasn't had a traditional cigarette since. And he's become so passionate about how his life has changed since transitioning to so-called e-cigarettes, he devotes a good deal of time and energy talking to others about them. He puts together a weekly podcast at vapersplace.com, helped start the Scenic City Vapors Club and hosts a bimonthly gathering that draws around 200 "vapers."

"I used to buy my cigarettes by the carton," he says. "My wife and I both did. We spent $400 a month. After I started vaping, I still had eight packs and I gave them away."

Vapers, as e-cig smokers are known, inhale vapor from water or juice through a personal vaporizer, which come in several different shapes and sizes. The juice is made from nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and flavoring. Proponents of e-cigs point out that there is no tobacco, no combustion and no secondhand smoke. They also are cheaper than regular cigarettes and you can use them in many public places that have banned cigarette smoking.

While e-cigs have been around since 2007, they are now attracting more attention simply because more people are using them. Sales have doubled each year since 2007, according to a recent USA Today article, which quoted Wells Fargo tobacco analyst Bobbie Herzog as predicting annual sales in 2013 to reach $1.7 billion.

Those numbers have caught the attention of Big Tobacco, which still expects sales of regular tobacco products to be around $80 billion this year. But also taking notice are the Federal Drug Administration and state governments as well as companies that have banned smoking or that charge smokers higher premiums for health insurance but don't know yet what to make of e-cigs.

The FDA, which has done virtually nothing regarding e-cigs to date, is expected to issue some regulations regarding them in the coming months. Among the issues are e-cigs use of fruit-flavored juice and cartoon characters in ads, which some contend is designed to go after young users.

Agrafiotis says adults like fruit flavors, too, and if the FDA is truly concerned that the fruit flavors are being used to target young people, they also should be banned from coffee, creamers, vodka and Nicorette, an FDA-approved smoking cessation product.

Timothy Lanier, a 28-year-old who switched to e-cigs after more than 10 years of smoking, says he and other vapers don't want to come off as proselytizers on the wonders of e-cigs for children or non-smokers. They direct their comments to smokers who want to quit.

"We don't advocate this," he says. "It is less harmful than smoking. It should not be promoted to kids or someone who doesn't smoke."

Earlier this week, 40 attorneys general, including Tennessee AG Bob Cooper, asked the FDA to place restrictions on e-cigarettes and their ingredients. In a letter signed by all 40, the attorneys general asked the FDA to take all available measures to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products under the Tobacco Control Act, which dictates such things as age requirements for buying and advertising restrictions. The attorneys general from Georgia and Alabama did not sign the letter.

Agrafiotis, who owns Portifinos restaurant in East Ridge, says he has devoted countless hours to researching e-cigs and recently attended a national conference on the subject that drew 14,000 people to California. He also encourages his staff and patrons at Portifinos to consider e-cigs as an alternative to smoking, but is adamant that the devices be described as a safer -- not a safe -- alternative.

He does all of this on his own dime and tells those who'll listen that he no longer has the insatiable craving to light up as soon as he wakes up.

"I don't have that emotional attachment anymore. It's a whole different feeling. I rarely cough anymore and, when I do, it surprises me. My girls now want to hug me because I don't stink."

That's the same line of reasoning that Steve Dockery used when opening Vintage Vapors, an e-cigarette and coffee lounge on Ringgold Road. The former interior and theme designer opened the shop -- available only to those 18 and older -- in June after he used e-cigs to quit regular cigarettes.

"Once I saw the impact this had in my life and then in helping others, it became personal," he says.

Another store, Vapor Tonics, recently opened on Vine Street on the edge of the University of Tennesee at Chattanooga campus. Ben Connally, manager of Vapor Tonics, which opened Sept. 2, says he doesn't sell to anyone under 18. Connally himself quit smoking five years ago before e-cigs gained in popularity.

"I wish I'd had them," he said. "It would have been easier to quit."

His store, which is near UTC and also Unum and the Hamilton County Courthouse, was strategically located to be near "a lot of smokers," he says. "I see this an alternative to smoking."

On a recent morning before Vintage Vapors opened for the day, Dockery, employees Brandon White and Jonathan Dan and Agrafiotis were inside the store just to talk about vaping.

A 26-year smoker, Dockery says he quit the minute he tried his first e-cig three years ago. He, like Agrafiotis and Dan, who used to smoke three packs a day, all were "automatic switchovers," meaning they quit cigarettes the minute they tried their first e-cig. White's switch was more transitional.

"I smoked one or two cigarettes a week after switching for a couple of weeks," he says.

In addition to not smoking anymore, another big selling point is that vaporizing is much cheaper than smoking. Agrafiotis estimates that vaping costs about $1 a day after you've bought a vaporizer, which range in price. A start-up kit at Vintage Vapors is $39, or you can spend about $140 for the iTaste 134.

A big part of what Dockery and his staff try to do is educate people not just on how the mechanisms work, but also how to choose the right juice. They offer samples with zero nicotine content for people to try during their initial visit.

Dockery has an off-site lab where he makes most of the juices sold at Vintage Vapors, which offer varying levels of nicotine --0 mg, 6 mg, 12 mg and 24 mg. The juices, sold in 6 ml bottles, cost around $6 each and last about a week, depending on the user. The varying levels are designed to aid in the transition process, Dockery says. A heavy smoker might start with higher nicotine level, for example, and later switch to something lower.

The nicotine in the juice is made from tobacco, which is one of the reasons the FDA is looking at e-cigs and why Agrafiotis and Dockery insist that vaping should be described as safer and not safe. Nicotine is the addictive element in cigarettes but has not historically been classified as carcinogenic. The Centers for Disease Control say studies on the carcinogenic qualities of nicotine are "inconclusive."

Many people assume when they first start vaping that they will prefer a tobacco-flavored juice, but Dockery says the opposite is true. The flavored juices, according to Dockery, Dan and Agrafiotis, are important in helping people move from traditional cigarettes to e-cigs.

"Once you stop smoking, your tastesbuds come back and you actually taste things again," Dan said.

Lanier, who started smoking when he was 15 growing up in North Carolina -- "We had a smoking section in my church" -- says most former smokers don't want that tobacco taste.

"It's the nicotine that brings you back. After you've been vaporizing for a while, you don't want it to taste like a cigarette."

He bought his first e-cig at a gas station a little more than a year ago and says vaping now is more of a hobby than an addiction. He meets every Wednesday at Vintage Vapors with a group of six or eight guys and they share stories and information about which juices they have tried and which e-cig styles they prefer. The meetings help each of the men stay away from cigarettes as well, he says.

"It's more like a cigar smoker, where it's something you plan and enjoy instead of something you are doing in the rain out behind the office and feeling guilty about," Lanier says.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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