Parrish, a Ranlo resident, was looking for a way to kick his smoking habit. On the advice of a friend, he tried “vaping.”
It’s an alternative that uses electronic devices to simulate smoking by vaporizing solutions that contain flavorings and, sometimes, nicotine.
Parrish said the products helped him quit traditional smoking within weeks, and he’s been vaping ever since. He’s even started “cloud chasing,” participating in competitions where vapers square off to see who can unleash the biggest vapor cloud.
He’s not alone. At least five vape shops — those catering to vape users and the subculture — have opened in Gastonia over the past year. Nationwide sales of vaping products may have topped $2 billion in 2014, according to Wells Fargo analysts. That number is projected to reach $10 billion annually by 2017.
But the public health consequences of the practice remain unclear, and some vaping groups worry that federal regulations could limit the growing market.
So are e-cigs and vaping here to stay?
Is it just a fad?
Julie Woessner, executive director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association doesn’t think so.
“I think it’s tempting for a lot of people to look at the vape space like it’s a gimmick,” Woessner said. “But the fact is that vaping works for a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Woessner became an early proponent of e-cigarettes six years ago when she, like Parrish, was trying to quit smoking. Those early “cigalike,” products worked fine for her, she said, but were an underwhelming introduction to e-cigs for many smokers.
“The batteries for those first units wouldn’t charge fast enough. You were constantly having to charge and change your batteries, and it just wasn’t satisfying,” Woessner said.
Product improvements over time, new vaping hardware, new flavors and the availability of places to purchase new products make it easier for vapers to find what they’re looking for, she said.
Fred Malek, general manager of Charlotte Vapes on East Franklin Blvd., said the customizability of current vaping technology — users can purchase solutions that allow them to scale their nicotine usage, for instance — gives it broad appeal to smokers.
“We’ve found that to be a big deal for people looking to quit,” Malek said.
The science still isn’t clear
David Peterson, CEO of Mooresville-based Kure, said multiple challenges remain for the fledgling vaping industry, including developing a better understanding of vaping’s consequences on the health of its users.
A recent Johns Hopkins University study found that mice exposed to e-cig vapor — at roughly the same levels as a person smoking e-cigarettes regularly for two weeks — were more likely to be susceptible to viruses and bacteria than mice not exposed to the vapors.
Another study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine found that vapers could be inhaling formaldehyde, a carcinogen, when they puff.
Peterson doesn’t think the evidence is overwhelming yet.
“As more studies are done, I think you’re going to see this as a better choice than smoking,” he said. “But that’s definitely going to slow adoption until that day gets here.”
Rules could tighten industry
Cheryl Richter, the secretary treasurer of The National Vapers club, doesn’t think the practice of vaping is going anywhere.
She’s just not so sure about some of the smaller shops that have sprung up across the country in recent years.
“The fact that so many have made the switch to vaping and that so many have adopted it as a hobby, I think it’s definitely here to stay,” Richter said. “Whether the manufacturers and store owners are regulated out of existence is another story.”
Her group worries that proposed Food and Drug Administration rules could group e-cigs and vaping devices in the same category as tobacco and traditional cigarettes. Such a change would require products introduced after 2007 to file for “premarket registration,” with the FDA.
“That equates to millions of dollars per company per product in research and paperwork for compliance,” Richter said. “It would put those smaller mom and pop places and the small innovators right out of business.”
That would essentially leave the big tobacco companies as the only viable operators in the e-cig space.
Parrish said that would restrict consumer choice.
He hopes no substantial regulations are passed that hinder his ability to vape.
“The variety of flavors is amazing, and vaping has really grown into a community,” Parrish said. “I hoping nothing happens to change that.”