AZ Vape Club opens near campus, caters to lightly regulated e-cig market
Photo by Doug James
|Dave Ritchie, owner of the new AZ Vape Club, displays a collection of high-end e-cigarettes, commonly called mods, at his store at 40th Street and Bell Road.
In an online video, Dave Ritchie, 47, owner of the freshly opened AZ Vape Club, is showing off a solid brass electronic cigarette body he is selling for $220. His fingers, tattooed with the letters “D-O-N-E,” swiftly turn heavy brass threads before slipping a red battery into the device. Showing off the fruits of his handiwork, Ritchie begins puffing great white clouds that envelop his head except for his salt and pepper goatee.
The brass device is an electronic cigarette, or personal vaporizer. It produces a cloud of smoke-like vapor infused with nicotine and can be smoked like a cigarette. Hoping to cater to the emerging market for the new devices, Ritchie opened the doors to his e-cigarette retail store and lounge at 40th Street and Bell Road on July 4.
However, as entrepreneurs like Ritchie set up shop and a vapor subculture emerges, national health organizations like the American Lung Association are waving red flags over the lack of regulation and oversight of the devices. After two e-cigarette distributors, including the Scottsdale-based Sottera, Inc., successfully sued the FDA over it’s blocking of e-cigarette imports, a federal judge in 2010 ordered the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes as traditional tobacco products instead of as drugs or medical devices.
This ruling dismayed many in the health community, including Christian Stumpf, the Regional Director of Government Relations for the American Lung Association of the Southwest. Stumpf says that tobacco-products require less stringent study and oversight than products marketed as drugs or medical devices. The federal ruling means that the e-cigarette industry can carry on without all the clinical trials on long and short-term health effects that would be required for approval as a drug.
“(E-cigarettes) are unregulated products; nobody knows what’s in them,” says Stumpf.
Regulators struggle to keep up with the vapor trend
A crucial component of the vaporizer is the liquid that is converted to vapor. Known as “juice” in vapor circles, the liquid is generally a combination of glycerin, which produces the white cloud; nicotine; and artificial and natural flavoring agents, although nicotine-free juices are also available. A survey of the small bottles for sale behind Ritchie’s counter reveals the lack of standardized labeling. Some are devoid of ingredient lists, while others volunteer simply “natural and artificial flavors.” Few, if any, labels display health warnings.
Even with the ruling against them in 2010, the FDA can still regulate the manufacture, marketing and distribution of e-cigarettes under the authority granted by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. However, the FDA has yet to put these rules in place, putting the industry in a minimally-regulated limbo. Stumpf says industry watchers are hoping to see the FDA’s proposed regulations released by the agency next month.
But devout vapor converts like Ritchie, who says he couldn’t have kicked his smoking habit without the devices, carry on with their habit and hobby regardless of the regulatory situation. Five years ago Ritchie, a tattoo artist by trade, decided it was time to kick his long-term smoking habit.
“The family wasn’t happy with his stink,” says Ritchie’s wife, Tina.
The problem was Ritchie was hooked on cigarettes bad. He tried a variety of cessation methods, such as nicotine gum. He went cold turkey once, but after two days was so irritable his wife bought him a pack of cigarettes. Then, someone introduced Ritchie to electronic cigarettes. Ritchie says he took to the devices immediately and soon had left cigarettes behind.
“He drove me crazy for two years while trying to quit,” says Tina. When he finally kicked the habit with the vaporizer, “I basically had my husband back,” she says.
Back in his shop, Ritchie mentions that an Arizona law banning their sale to minors, SB 1209, just went into effect this September—another indication of the loose oversight of e-cigarettes. Previously, a minor could legally purchase vaporizers and juice, even though they contained nicotine. Some states still don’t have laws on the books banning sales to minors.
And e-cigarettes were not included in Arizona’s landmark 2006 Smoke-Free Arizona Act, which banned smoking in most indoor public spaces, so vaporizing in restaurants, bars and other indoor spaces is legal in the state. Today, it is left to the discretion of the owners whether to allow patrons to vaporize in their establishments.
E-cigarette users profess health benefits
Proponents of e-cigarettes claim that without needing to burn tobacco, e-cigarettes deliver the puffer a relatively pure dose of nicotine without all the nasty by-products of burning tobacco like tar and carcinogens. While there is little research to verify what would appear to be obvious, one FDA study did cast an ominous light on ingredients of imported e-cigarettes. In 2009 the agency seized a sampling of e-cigarettes entering the country and conducted a laboratory analysis on the products. That year it released a statement saying they had found “detectable levels” of carcinogens and diethylene glycol, a toxic substance, in the samples and warned the public about the devices.
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However, several vapers we spoke to reported positive changes to health when they switch from cigarettes to vaporizers. Ritchie says that when he switched to vaping, he regained his senses of taste and smell, and felt that his lungs had cleared out. But Stumpf cautions against relying on anecdotal evidence. The American Lung Association, a non-profit health organization founded in 1904 to help fight lung disease, recommends smokers instead use one of the well-studied and regulated FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies on the market, like nicotine gum or lozenges.
The ideal scenario for Stumpf would be classifying e-cigarettes as medical devices, which would initiate an approval process that would require ingredient disclosures and extensive clinical trials. So far industry players, like Sottera, which markets the NJOY brand of e-cigarettes, have resisted this classification.
At the very least, Stumpf wants the FDA to hurry up and get its proposed rules out and start regulating e-cigarettes more vigorously. Yet another symptom of the regulatory vacuum is the appearance of e-cigarette advertisements where tobacco ads have long been banned, such on television and at sporting events. Stumpf says health advocates have been horrified to see these ads in the absence of rules on advertising and marketing for e-cigarettes. NJOY, an e-cigarette brand owned by Sottera, riled many, including the American Lung Association, when it aired an ad during the 2013 Super Bowl. The spot featured a manly man taking a long drag off a cigarette look-alike and exhaling a smooth flow of smoke-like vapor out. The spot makes smoking look cool and satisfying, an effect the government has sought to take out of television advertising.
As policy-makers and corporations duke it out over e-cigarettes, Ritchie and his customers at the new AZ Vape Club show that the vapor community has become its own subculture, carrying on independently of big companies and government oversight.
With few businesses producing vaporizer parts, Ritchie, known as Ghost Modder on vapor forums and his website (“mod” is shorthand for modification and refers to the body of the vaporizer), has found success using his skills making tattoo machines to produce high-end vaporizers. Ritchie says he ships his devices all over the world using his website, ghostmodder.com. On YouTube you can find a video of Ritchie’s brass mouth pieces being reviewed by a dealer in the Philippines. Ritchie says he sold over 300 of his mods last year.
An enthusiastic vaping subculture emerges
Hanging out and talking with the vapor enthusiasts at the AZ Vape Club, it’s clear that for many, vaping is more than a smoking replacement. It’s a hobby all it’s own. Inside the store there is only a faintly fruity scent as people tinker with different parts and configurations of their e-cigs like prized hot rods, making tweaks and adjustments for things like vapor cloud size. Avid vaper and AZ Vape employee Robert Jaynes says that many vapers even mix their own juice at home. All the ingredients are accessible, including the nicotine, which can purchased at pharmaceutical grade online.
Creativity has flourished in the design of vaporizers. There are no hard and fast rules on what a vaporizer must look like. At a meet up with 18 vapor enthusiasts at the AZ Vape Club one Saturday in October, Tim Thomson, a former tobacco smoker, was showing off a vaporizer made out of an Altoids mint box. Other vaporizers are sleek, heavy and look futuristic like something out of a science fiction movie. One online seller makes vaporizer mods out of wood.
There’s a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere at the gathering among AZ Vape Club’s big screen televisions, and there is a sense of camaraderie. Tina says they have cloud-blowing contests, and during a recent visit, Jaynes shows off his ability to blow perfect O’s of smoke in rapid fire.
Behind all the fun is belief in the health benefits of vaping over traditional cigarettes, and there is a real drive to get smokers off burning tobacco, regardless of the lack of scientific studies. One Puma Press reporter received lots of good-hearted chiding from the gathered vapers when he went outside for a cigarette. The tobacco smell was observed and he was repeatedly urged by many of the vapers in attendance to quit smoking. The community is one feature of the vaping subculture.
“When you do this it’s like AA; you’ve got a support group to help you quit smoking,” says Thomson.
Another enthusiast at the vape meet, Mike Baucum, reflects the evangelism in the vapor community. After switching to vapor this year after smoking a pack a day for three years, Baucum joined the Vape a Vet Project, a Phoenix-based non-profit that provides free vaporizer starter kits to active duty service members and veterans to help get them off cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
As useful as these vapers have found e-cigarettes for quitting smoking, in today’s regulatory situation, it is illegal for companies to claim benefits as smoking-cessation devices and it will stay that way if they continue to be regulated as tobacco products.
But enthusiasts like Tina and Dave Ritchie, who recently helped Tina’s father, a lifelong smoker make the switch to vaporizing, aren’t waiting around for clinical studies to tell them which is safer.