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Clearing the smoke on vaping in Howard County

Do e-cigarettes stop smoking or create a new generation of nicotine addicts?

Loria Schiesser started smoking when she was 13.

Her mom smoked through chemotherapy and surgery despite a lung cancer diagnosis. After repeated failed attempts to break her addiction, Schiesser's salvation from 17 years of smoking a pack a day came in the form of a vape, a battery-powered device that heats up liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor.

Like other smokers who turn to e-cigarettes as a smoke cessation tool, Schiesser said she smells better, breathes better and feels better. "It's the only thing that worked for me and my mother," Schiesser said.

Schiesser now helps run Vape Dojo as vice president, a company based in Middle River that sells vape juice — the nicotine laced liquid in e-cigarettes — and other vaping products to retailers across the country, as well as in its own brick-and-mortar shops.

Vape Dojo opened Howard County's first vape shop in 2012. Since then, a handful of shops have cropped up in the county, operating in an unregulated industry where large-scale research on the effects of e-cigarettes is inconclusive as popularity of the products increases.

"It's a Wild West over here," said Miki Ben, owner of Mr. Smoke, a tobacco and accessories shop in Elkridge. "You can get whatever you want from wherever you want."

Absent federal oversight, e-cigarettes pose a public health quagmire for state and federal regulators. On one hand, the devices, which contain nicotine, are hailed as a new hope for smoke cessation, minimizing dangers posed by traditional cigarettes, which the American Cancer Society says contain 7,000 harmful chemicals, including 70 that cause cancer. On the other hand, the devices could pose potential dangers as a gateway to creating a new generation of nicotine addicts, particularly among impressionable teens, according to health advocacy groups.

The responsibility to regulate vaping has fallen to localities, resulting in a hodgepodge of state and local regulations. In August last year, the Howard County Council unanimously banned vaping in public places, becoming the second jurisdiction after Baltimore City to ban the devices in Maryland. California took a more stringent approach by passing a law that would regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products this month.

Large-scale scientific studies have not cleared the smoke. The FDA does not know the potential risks of e-cigarettes and the World Health Organization calls the devices' safety "illusive," noting that the chemicals are not disclosed and are not properly tested. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is not enough evidence that e-cigarettes are healthier than smoking. Few large-scale studies examine nicotine addiction separate from cigarettes.

Meanwhile, the use of e-cigarettes and vaporizers has doubled every year since 2010, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse report.

The FDA is trying to extend its authority to regulate e-cigarettes, which it says meets the legal definition of a tobacco product. Regulations would include imposing a federal age restriction and rigorous scientific review of new tobacco products, according to its website.

Schiesser said the bottom line is e-cigarettes worked for her and countless other vapers.

"It mimics the hand motion, you inhale and exhale," she said. "It simply works."

'We're like teachers'

At Kahuna Vapor, a bar-style lounge in Ellicott City, customers can pick between two juice menus with flavors varying from a mix of sour strawberries and a sweet tropical smoothie to cotton candy and ice cream mixed together or Lucky Charms cereal flavor.

Like other vaping businesses, Shawn Bowser wants his store, which first opened up online, to be regulated. The store is named after the Hawaiian word for spiritual leaders, Bowser said, to increase public awareness about vaping.

"We're like teachers," Bowser said.

Bowser has self-regulated in anticipation of future regulation. The maximum cap on nicotine is 24 milligrams and all juices have child-resistant caps.

"Not all businesses will follow the same procedures," Bowser said. "It's really on us. We need to make sure the ingredients are what they are."

Sales associate Patrick Brooks, 23, who turned to vaping when he faced severe gum recession, pushes non-smokers away from vaping.

"We're not in it for the social aspect," Brooks said. "This is our way of getting out."

At Vape Dojo, juices are tested in-house for the amount of nicotine. Staff began carding minors for attempting to purchase electronic cigarettes before the statewide ban took effect roughly three years ago. As its tamper-evident bottles cycle through the production process, consistency is key, said Matt Topolski, chief of liquid operations at Charlie Noble, a juice manufacturer.

"We look to ourselves as being responsible for the life of this industry," said Topolski. "If we're not doing these things, this industry is going to disappear."

But local businesses fear regulations will not include vapers, those who use the e-cigarettes, in the drafting process, pushing small businesses out of the industry.

At Mr. Smoke, owner Miki Ben says cheap online products have killed small vaping businesses in the industry. Mr. Smoke's juice operation is restricted to two small stands in a store chock full of other products.

Six years ago when the vaping industry was just kicking off, people could make a quick buck. "Back then, you could make business because it was something new," Ben said. "We try to carry everything just to stay above water."

Ben said he hopes health officials take a closer look at the vaping industry, and "get rid of all the excess and all the people who do it just for the sake of low profit and don't know what they're doing."

Business owners at Vape Dojo — who describe themselves as vapers first — worry stringent regulations could deter smokers back to traditional cigarettes.

"If it's more expensive than smoking cigarettes, people just are not going to vape anymore," said Schiesser.

"We don't want to be lumped in with traditional cigarettes," Bowser said. "Don't tie us to something we're not just because there isn't another option."

The FDA is considering a requirement to test the ingredients of vape juices, a cost that local businesses say they cannot bear. If approved, the requirement for FDA approval would leave businesses with a handful of product suppliers, Brooks said. "The regulations shouldn't leave a few oligopalies," Brooks said. "If the price for testing is too high, it would shutter local business who have just started."

Kenneth Walker, CEO of Charlie Noble, said high taxes on vape products would "doom the poor to cigarettes." Walker, a father of three, said vaping was the most effective option to curb a 14-year-long habit of smoking.

"Chances are someone in your family or workplace vapes. If you have questions, ask them how it's working," Walker said. "Cigarettes are disgusting to me now."

A wide market for vaping products has emerged, with most juices ranging from $5 to $30. The price of vaporizers, mods and other hardware vary from $15 to upwards of $400 for high-end collectors. "You simply can't tax a $15 vape juice the same way you tax a cigarette," Brooks said.

Schiesser formed the Maryland Vape Professionals three months ago in opposition to proposed state bills to classify electronic cigarettes as a tobacco product and increase the age when e-cigarettes are banned.

"We started doing this because we vape," said Topolski."We didn't start vaping because we do this. We're vapers first and foremost."

Both bills were killed in committee as a result of what Schiesser says is lack of knowledge about how vaping works. But laws will come soon, Schiesser predicts.

"As these bills pass in other states, they are going to come back next year," she said.

Curbing sales to minors

The vaping community is experiencing a shift, Ben said. More users are turning to vaping for social needs and for the kick than as a smoke cessation alternative.

For teens, that allure is especially tempting.

Teenagers are realizing the dangers of smoking cigarettes, said Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, "but many of them believe e-cigarettes are perfectly safe. We don't know that. If anything, we believe they are not … there's a sort of sex appeal about them."

State and local data show a decline in the number of violations for retailers who sell tobacco products to minors. The next step is clamping down on enforcement of e-cigarettes sales to minors, said Elizabeth Menachery, director of Howard County's Health Department.

The department, which plans to step up e-cigarette enforcement, has not conducted enforcement operations for electronic cigarettes. Tobacco licenses do not indicate if a store sells e-cigarettes, making it difficult to track e-cigarette stores. With stores popping up and disappearing, it is difficult to track in a live database, Menachery said.

Only the purchase of electronic cigarettes is illegal for minors, making it challenging to pin down illegal activity in vaping stores, which are often set-up as bar-style facilities where customers can try the products, said Menachery.

State law prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to youth under 18 but companies that market to teens do not face the same restrictions regarding packaging and marketing as regular tobacco products, raising concerns about re-normalizing tobacco use. E-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to results from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Kahuna Vapor refuses to sell juices that market to youth. Its staff recently refused to sell a juice that looks like a Lifesaver candy and is designed as a pen. It's a decision not many other businesses will make, Brooks said.

But age restrictions on sales can easily be circumvented by going online where it is virtually impossible to block online sales. Local businesses that sell online have age gates that redirect upon the user's identification as a minor.

"It's nonsense. Any 6-year-old knows if you want to go into the website, you have to press here," Ben said.

The county health department is working with the Maryland Legal Resource Center to develop protocol to clamp down on sales of e-cigarettes to youth.

"We know it's something we need to target," said Menachery. "The question is, how do we do it?"

This story has been updated.

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