Smokers have been lighting up in a different way here in Denton and around the country as electronic cigarettes gain popularity, moving from a fad to a real culture change.
Proponents of the devices say they are a cheaper alternative to smoking, while federal agencies debate just what e-cigarettes are and if they should step in to regulate the growing industry.
“Denton seems to be a hotbed right now. A lot of people seem to be accepting,” said North Texas Vapor Shop manager Steve Zotigh. “I think it has just as much to do with the college kids as the older population. A lot of them are very receptive to it. Most older people seem to grasp the idea of the value of this much more than a lot of younger people do.”
Zotigh said younger people are not as concerned about the effects of cigarette smoking, while to older folks it’s not just the cost of cigarettes being saved but the long-term health benefits.
“A lot of people, including myself, say you start to grow your taste buds after you stop smoking — a lot better sense of smell, a lot better sense of taste, your clothes, your car. Even if you don’t smoke in your home, the places still tend to smell. It’s a constant odor on you.”
Zotigh said he could remember a few years ago being accosted in bars whenever he would use his e-cigarette but said things have changed significantly since.
“Now, no one bats an eye,” he said.
The devices emit water vapor with no evidence to suggest there is any nicotine still in the vapor, Zotigh said. Inside the liquid is nicotine and propylene glycol, which is used in asthma inhalers and hard candy and other everyday products, with the last ingredient being the flavoring.
“We use all food-safe flavoring — the only chemical in there that really has any adverse effect will be nicotine.”
Tim Parker, owner of three Vapormax businesses in Denton, Keller and The Colony, said the stores keep popping up because people are seeing that it is a very profitable business.
“And it’s the best alternative we have ever had to smoking and the easiest way we have ever had for people to quit,” he said.
Regarding the regulation debate, Parker said it has been tried several times, but there has not been any valid reason to stop it.
“And that’s what the cigarette companies and pharmaceutical companies want because they are losing a lot of money. And as this gains popularity. they will continue to lose money.”
Parker said he expects some kind of tax to be placed on the industry eventually, but said he did not know what kind, or how, because the liquid used does not fall into the same category as tobacco.
“Cigarettes have 4,000 toxins; with our products, we cut out those toxins. Our liquid has four ingredients.”
There is nicotine in it, but Parker said other products have nicotine in them and, if they want to levy a nicotine tax, it should affect other products, as well.
Another consideration of the new fad is safety. Denton fire officials said an Oct. 5 residential fire in the 1700 block of Glendora was started by an e-cigarette charger in a bedroom of the home.
“It’s a heat-producing device,” said Fire Marshal Laura Behrens. “Anything that’s a heat-producing device should not be place near combustibles and should not be left unattended.”
She said this was believed to be the first accidental fire caused by an e-cigarette device and hopes it will be the last.
“It’s really important to follow all manufacturer’s directions, and when they say to use their brand chargers, you need to do so,” Behrens said.
The Denton Police Department has no legal issue with e-cigarettes currently as there are no regulations in place.
“Is it smoking; is it not smoking? I have no clue. Right now, there is not anything you can regulate on the e-cigarettes,” said Officer Orlando Hinojosa. He said he wasn’t aware of any possible ordinances being talked about by the city.
Lindsey Baker, spokewoman for the city, said Denton’s current smoking policy only addresses lit tobacco products — it does not address the e-cigarette phenomena.
“To date, that has not come up,” she said.
Meanwhile more and more e-cigarette companies hoping to stake their claim in the market are rehashing marketing tactics of the past used to get smokers hooked.
They’re using cab-top and bus stop displays, sponsoring race cars and events, and encouraging smokers to “rise from the ashes” and take back their freedom in slick TV commercials featuring celebrities such as actor Stephen Dorff.
The Food and Drug Administration plans to set marketing and product regulations for electronic cigarettes in the near future. But for now, almost anything goes.
“Right now, it’s the wild, wild west,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products in a recent interview.
Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.