Equipment for electronic smoking devices

In addition to a variety of electronic smoking devices such as those above on the right, stores such as the one on East Drive in Arbutus sell small bottles of a clear e-liquid, on left, which typically contain nicotine and a chemical called propylene glycol. The liquids come in a variety of flavors. (Staff photo by Lauren Loricchio / February 26, 2014)

The popularity of electronic smoking devices has prompted one Arbutus businessman to expand to Catonsville, even as two other entrepreneurs look to capitalize on the phenomenon in the area.

Two retired Baltimore City police officers, Rick Willard and Kevin Hoff, will open an electronic smoking store called Gypsy Vape on Saturday, March 1, at 5602 Baltimore National Pike, in the Charing Cross Shopping Center.

Another electronic smoking business is scheduled to open later in the month in downtown Catonsville.

Victor Vega, the owner of Vapor Villa in Arbutus, said his store has done so well he's opening a second location at 730 Frederick Road. "There's definitely a market for [electronic smoking devices] because people are trying to quit smoking," said Vega, who does not smoke.

According to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, there are more than 3.5 million electronic cigarette users in the U.S., and that number is continuing to grow.

Vega said electronic smoking devices, which allow users to inhale water vapor rather than smoke, offer a healthier and less expensive alternative to smoking.

However, the verdict is still out on whether electronic smoking is healthier for people than tobacco smoke, said Dr. Alfred Papali, a fellow of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The method of ingesting nicotine, referred to as "vaping" involves inhaling water vapor that forms when a battery-powered tube, called a cartomizer, heats a solution that usually contains nicotine and the chemical propylene glycol, which e-cigarette users refer to as "juice." It is a smoke-free way of getting a nicotine fix.

Studies remain inconclusive as to how electronic smoking affects users because it's a relatively new thing, Papali said. Electronic cigarettes were introduced to the U.S. in 2007, so the number of medical studies done on them are few and far between.

Papali said studies of second hand affects of the water vapor produced by e-cigarettes have shown the toxicity is much less than that of tobacco smoke.

E-cigarettes aren't regulated like tobacco, and users aren't subject to the same rules and regulations. E-cigarette users can be spotted in indoor public places in Maryland instead of going outside in the cold to light up.

However, that freedom may soon come to an end.

Maryland lawmakers have introduced legislation that could make vaping in public subject to the same laws that smokers have to abide by. The bill was introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates Feb. 17, and will add electronic smoking devices to the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, which banned smoking from indoor public places.

Papali said he believes the ban is a good idea from a public health standpoint, at least until the medical community understands what the health effects are.

"The concern is that there will be or there is a renormalization of the act of smoking. And the decades of efforts against smoking are essentially being wiped out in a matter of a few short years," Papali said.

Hoff and Willard said they're not worried about the new legislation. The business partners were both smokers who looked to "vaping" as a way to kick their smoking habit, and they believe e-cigarettes will eventually replace tobacco products.

Hoff, 48, used to smoke cigars socially. He said he was injured in the line of duty in 2006 and retired for medical reasons in 2009.

He was forced to quit smoking, which he said took a toll on his social life, due to a severe lung disease.

"[E-cigarettes] give me a way to enjoy a social life," Hoff said.

"I like this because you can pick it up, not get addicted to it and walk away," Hoff said.

Willard, 47, has been smoking since the age of 15. He tried everything to kick the habit — nicotine patches, nicotine gum, even hypnosis. Nothing worked.

He said he stopped smoking cigarettes a year ago but continues to satisfy his nicotine addiction with electronic smoking.

Both men say they turned to e-cigarettes, which they believe is less harmful to their health.

"I don't want to kick it. I feel great," Willard said.

Papali said electronic cigarettes reduce the number of tobacco cigarettes people smoke, which is a good thing. But it's uncertain whether they help people quit the habit, he said.

"We have a lot more questions than we have answers right now. We just need more studies to have a better sense of how electronic cigarettes affect our health," Papali said.