Smoke billowed from the nearly 1,500 “vapers” who filled the bottom floor of the Benton Convention Center on Friday.
The thick fog — reaching from floor to ceiling at VapeMania 15 — was a clear sign of those consumers’ preference for vaporizers over electronic cigarettes at a time when just 15.2 percent of adult Americans smoke combustible cigarettes.
Traditional e-cigs are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a self-contained disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled. The manufacturers have provided few flavor choices, in part in expectations that the Food and Drug Administration eventually may limit flavorings as it does with combustible cigarettes.
Vapor products, though, feature a liquid capsule that is inserted into a cartridge, known as an open-system format. Vapors offer a wider variety of flavors, including fruits and candy. The use of the products is called vaping.
“I started vaping as a hobby while still a two-pack-a-day smoker of Marlboro Reds,” said Mike Kinion, 24, of Rock Hill, S.C. “I tried fruit flavors and after a few days, I found I didn’t want the cigarettes as much.
“After about a month, I didn’t need the cigarettes anymore because the vapor liquids weaned me off cigarettes without me even wanting it to.”
VapeMania 15 is billed as the third national convention of The Vape Association and has more than 60 vendors. It continues through Saturday and concludes at 6 p.m. Sunday. There is an admission charge.
There were very few window shoppers among the attendees, who ranged in age from 20 to 70-plus. Most were trying out new flavors from vendors ranging from Good Guy Vapors to Evil E-Juice, Carolina Cotton Tonic to V-shine.
Event organizers and attendees were not bashful about saying they hope the convention serves as another smoke signal to Reynolds American Inc., the traditional tobacco industry and FDA that the vaping industry is coalescing around a self-policing strategy that will bring stability.
“We are always looking for ways to be better, and up the ante,” the association said in a news release. “We chose North Carolina because we live here — and because RJR is right up the road, and it needs to know that we don’t intend on backing down.”
About a year ago, a Reynolds division recommended to the FDA that the agency ban the use of open-system vaporizers. Reynolds sells Vuse, the No. 1 e-cig product in the convenience store channel.
“We believe open-system vapor products create unique public health risks,” Reynolds spokesman David Howard said in September 2014.
With the next round of proposed FDA tobacco regulations expected any day — as it has been for close to 18 months — vendors are trying to balance defiance and anxiety about whether they could be regulated out of business.
“We’re holding our breath in one sense because we know how influential the anti-tobacco groups can be, particularly with Congress,” said Lane “Turtle” Hughey, who opened The Boiler Electronic Cigarette Co. and V-shine of Greenville, S.C., in early 2014.
“We also are making our bets that vaping has grown too big too fast for the FDA to be able to ban it, and that the politicians and state governments are seeing the tax revenue that can come from vaping.
“We recognize additional regulations are coming, but don’t regulate us to death,” Hughey said.
Flavor or nicotine?
Jennifer Giuffra, managing partner of VapeSations of Fredricksburg, Va., said her company offers 12 liquid flavors ranging from zero milligrams of nicotine to 12 milligrams, which is sought by smokers in their initial bid to quit.
“They are people who vape for the flavoring, and not the nicotine,” Giuffra said. “We don’t sell anything with names that we believe would appeal to children. Flavorings with those names are more and more frowned upon among vendors.
“We’re just like other small entrepreneurs trying to sell a legal product to people of legal age.”
Ronnie Mode drove from Forest City to see if he could find other styles to mix in with the cereal flavors that helped him quit smoking two years ago.
Mode, 52, said vaping was not only a lifestyle switch after 35 years as a smoker, but also a matter of life and death given he’s had open-heart surgery and suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
He said the appeal of the oldest of his seven grandchildren, Jordan, — “’grandpa, I love you and I want you to be around for me’ ... got me to quit.”
“But it sure ain’t been easy. You’ve got to want to quit because vaping doesn’t cure all the cravings.”
Kinion said friends ask him if he isn’t worried that scientists may find something wrong with vaping years down the road.
“I know it’s not safe safe, but it appears from my experience with it that I feel better,” Kinion said. “A vendor who puts out a poor quality juice will get blown up quickly the way social media works.
“I also don’t think the FDA, with vaping increasing in popularity, wants to go the route of banning it only to have people go the make-their-own-juice route.
“That, to me, would be more anti-public health than what we have now.”
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