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Look through the window of the gathering place on York Road some night, and you'll think it's a tavern from another time.

Men and women shoot pool. People cluster, chat and flirt. A haze hangs thick in the air.

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But it isn't smoke — and if you make the mistake of using the S-word here, the habitues of Towson Vaporium will likely look at you as though you've come from another planet.

At Maryland's largest all-service vaping parlor north of Interstate 695, tobacco of any kind is out. Vaping — inhaling a vaporized form of aromatic, often nicotine-infused liquid through a hand-held electronic device — is in.

"People are leery of the cloud at first," says customer Dave D'Aquila, 56, as he takes a draw from a vanilla custard-flavored "juice" through a $250 device. "Then they come in and see this is really just water vapor, that it smells like perfume, and they're open to a whole new experience."

As jurisdictions across the state and country are trying to figure out what, if anything, to do about vaping, those who love it are joining forces, officially and otherwise, in an attempt to persuade lawmakers and the public that it's a safe, even healthy, alternative to smoking — not to mention the raison-d'etre for a new, laid-back kind of community.

On the one hand, supporters hail vaping as a new hope for smoking cessation, one that lacks the dangers posed by traditional cigarettes, which the American Cancer Society says contain 7,000 harmful chemicals, including 70 that cause cancer.

Most vape juice contain only three or four chemicals, including nicotine, a compound that's addictive but not known to be carcinogenic.

Some health advocacy groups take a different view. The World Health Organization, noting that the chemicals are not always disclosed or properly tested, has called the supposed safety of vaping "illusive," and says it should be banned indoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is not enough evidence that vaping is healthier than smoking. The Food and Drug Administration says it does not know the potential risks.

In the absence of federal rules, state and local governments have produced a hodgepodge of regulations.

Some states, including New York and New Jersey, have banned indoor vaping, and California passed a law in February that would classify vaping materials as tobacco products.

In Maryland, Baltimore City and Howard County have banned vaping in public places.

In January, business owners and hobbyists came together to form Maryland Vape Professionals, or MVP, a trade association that lobbied members of the Maryland General Assembly during this year's session.

Five bills introduced this year would have restricted vaping, mainly by placing the activity and its accouterments in the same regulatory category as cigarettes, says Nathan Willner, a Baltimore lawyer and vaper who acts as MVP's lead counsel. None was approved.

"Legislators don't generally know any more about vaping than the general public, and that's not a whole lot just yet," says Willmer, 51. "There's a steep learning curve when it comes to vaping, and we helped them out with that before they were called to vote on the matter."

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Their efforts, he said, involved explaining that vaping involves no smoke of any kind.

That's an argument vapers routinely make.

At the Vaporium, a sleek-looking, tavern-like space in a strip mall just north of Towson Town Center, thousands of bottles of e-juice line the shelves behind the main bar.

There are more than 900 flavors, ranging from popular choices such as glazed doughnut and Cinnamon Toast Crunch to more esoteric varieties such as cappuccino and key lime pie.

Most of the two dozen or so people in a noisy Friday-night crowd say they were once heavy smokers, that vaping helped them ditch the habit, and that the merest whiff of tobacco smoke now leaves them aghast.

D'Aquila, a Gulf War veteran and salesman from Poplar Springs, Pa., says he tried quitting smoking, but couldn't pull it off until a year and a half ago, when he discovered that vaping made it possible to control the amount of nicotine he was consuming. E-liquids come in varying nicotine strengths, ranging from zero to 36 milligrams per milliliter.

D'Aquila says his clothes and car don't stink the way they did when he smoked a pack per day, that he doesn't cough much, and that he looks back on his former addiction with disbelief.

"I can't go near a person who smokes now," he says. "Why subject yourself to that kind of abuse? These pure, intense flavors are so incredibly pleasant."

Brendan Morris, a criminal justice student from Phoenix, Baltimore County, and another former smoker, says vaping has a cleansing effect.

"My lungs are clear," he says. "And I had no idea how much smoking messes up your taste buds. When I eat a cheeseburger now, it tastes like a cheeseburger."

When weighing the possible health risks of vaping, users will tell nonvapers there are two essential points.

First, they say, most of the published studies that come down on the side of skeptics miss the point. The hobby is likely harder on the user than inhaling nothing, they concede, but compared to smoking cigarettes, it's like going to a spa.

"Look at this," says Izabella Janus, 28, of White Marsh, flashing a page on her smartphone.

The image compares a massive block of text that lists all the chemical ingredients in a cigarette with the mere three contained in most high-quality juices: propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin — neither of them toxic — and nicotine.

"The FDA wants to shut down vaping," Janus says. "But trust me. It's not about health, it's about money."

Second, few vapers take such studies at face value. Most insist that nearly every prominent anti-vaping study is backed, either directly or indirectly, by Big Tobacco.

They argue that vaping, now a $3 billion business, has taken a sizable bite out of that industry.

The use of vaping equipment has doubled every year since 2010, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, including sales of such gadgetry as "mods" — the battery-powered base units used to heat and vaporize e-juices — and attachments such as atomizers and drippers.

Morris says he has lent more than his share of support to the industry. He laid out about $250 for his vaping rig (accessories included) and figures he spends $100 per month or so on juices, which generally run somewhere between $20 and $30 per 30-milliliter bottle.

That can't please the tobacco industry, says Morris, who says he believes its close ties to state legislators means neither looks with favor on his hobby.

"There's a whole underground war going on between us and the government," he says, a cloud of corn pudding-flavored vapor floating about his head.

If the remark seems to contain a whiff of paranoia, it's not unusual among vapers, men and women (vapers must be at least 18) who can sit for hours in vaping parlors, discussing everything from the nuances of flavor and the latest viral video to the latest developments in gadgetry and the challenges that lie ahead for their pastime.

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As a visit to the Vaporium shows, a blend of hobbyist passion and existential uncertainty has fostered a sense of community.

D'Aquila sits with Morris, 29; Will Newbold, 28, a mechanic from Dundalk; Janus, 28, a home health care marketing director.

Morris, in rumpled flannel shirt, could pass for an alt-rock bassist. Newbold's beefy, tattooed arms radiate machismo. Janus, her blonde hair flowing from beneath a black ball cap, has a skater-dude air.

Mike Williams, 31, of Essex, a Vaporium employee, has been socializing since he got off work hours earlier.

"I love this environment," he says. "I'd never have met such a variety of people if it weren't for vaping."

Vape shops and lounges have sprung up by the thousands across the United States, including in every county in Maryland. Vapers can buy e-cigarettes at gas stations.

Janus smoked heavily for 11 years, she says, before a friend turned her on to vaping. She says the variety of the flavors, the absence of stink and the camaraderie all helped her ditch the tobacco habit in six months.

The idea of government stepping in angers her as much as vaping draws her in. "Vaping is a great alternative to cigarettes," she says.

Willner says some forms of vaping do involve nicotine levels above 36 milligrams per milliliter, the standard maximum for juices, but those are usually e-cigarettes, the prefilled, disposable, relatively crude delivery systems available at gas stations and in convenience stores.

In four months of existence, MVP has developed a tentative overview of the industry in the state.

Among the findings: Scores of dedicated vaping businesses have opened in Maryland, employing about 1,500 people, with "more opening every day." Most are small, family-run operations that employ seven people or fewer.

It's hard to track where they're clustered in such a quickly changing business, Willner says, but it "would not be a stretch" to say there are at least 150 in the state, about 20 of those in the greater Baltimore area.

The figure includes only dedicated vaping establishments, not those that combine vaping sales with other business.

Willner is familiar with the Towson Vaporium, the largest of the dozen or so vaping-related establishments in the York Road vicinity between the Beltway and Hunt Valley.

Most are sales sites, typically featuring a glass display case, a selection of juices and hardware, a small but informative staff and a comfortable sofa.

At SS Vape in Timonium (233 flavors), customers drift in and out on a quiet Sunday, asking for the latest juice flavor or seeking new coils — the part that produces the vapor. A pair of college students enter, followed by a housewife, a grandmother and a middle-aged man.

Store manager Brooks Lucier, 19, says he loves the diversity.

"My oldest customer is 86 and uses a walker. He smoked for 50-some years, and his doctor told him he should try vaping. That's a new thing — customers are being referred by doctors," he says.

If the Vaporium crowd is any indication, the hobby is showing up in many unexpected places, and a vibrant scene has taken shape.

Newbold, the mechanic, tells of a pack-per-day habit he has sharply reduced and names two favorite flavors: Loaded S'more and Blueberry Cotton Candy Ice Cream.

"Amazing," he marvels.

Morris describes a substance abuse problem he had eight years ago, complete with a stint in rehab.

Vaping is "a huge thing on the sobriety scene," he says. "When you've got no other vices left, this is a great choice."

For Janus, vaping has even meant opportunity. A serial poster of vaping selfies with 17,000 Instagram followers, she has been invited to work as a vaping model.

She plans to travel to California next month to record promotional videos with Vape Capitol, an "industry informational hub" that sponsors conventions across the country.

Such expos usually include contests for "tricksters" – vapers vying to exhale the biggest clouds or most elaborate rings.

The Vaporium goes quiet as Dominique Jackson, 22, clears a space in the middle of the floor, blows several circles, then exhales a perfect jellyfish — a ring that sprouts what appear to be jiggly legs.

But the Nottingham man says he's not the contest-entering type.

"I do this for fun," he says.

Morris laughs.

"This is definitely a culture," he says.

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