Public embraces ubiquitous new product before long-term health effects are known
SOHO On the edge of the downtown neighborhood, The Henley Vaporium is an intimate hipster hangout with overstuffed chairs, exposed brick, friendly counter help - but no booze.
Instead, the proprietors are peddling e-cigarettes, along with bottles of liquid nicotine ready to be plucked from behind a wooden bar and turned into flavorful vapor for a lung hit with a kick that is intended to simulate traditional smoking. A hint of banana nut bread e-juice lingered in the air one recent afternoon as patrons gathered around a low table to chat and vape, or sidled up to the inviting bar for help from a knowledgeable "vapologist."
Places like The Henley are a rarity, even in New York. But "vaping," itself, has had astonishing growth - in just eight years or so, the number of enthusiasts around the world has grown from a few thousand to millions. Believed by some to be the invention of a Chinese pharmacist, vaping now has its own YouTube gurus, trade associations, lobbyists, online forums and vapefests for meet-ups centered on what enthusiasts consider a safer alternative to the "analog," their name for tobacco cigarettes.
Vaping may be safer - there are differing opinions - but it isn't necessarily cheap.
Will Hopkins, a 21-year-old dog walker in black leather jacket and skull ring, visits Henley four or five times a week. He smoked a pack of full-strength Marlboros a day for eight years, until he took up vaping. The same goes for his buddy, 20-year-old photographer Will Gallagher, who has been vaping for two years and is fond of his brass mod, a cylindrical device that's larger than a cigarette and decorated with a tiger and Chinese lettering.
"I think both of us have poured in probably a little over a thousand" dollars, Gallagher said of their equipment. "I like the exclusivity of vaping. I like to keep changing up my stuff."
The Wills are into rebuilding tanks and rewiring coils, scouting new e-liquid flavors and adjusting their devices, which can cost up to $300 at Henley, to allow for more vapor, more flavor. But the co-owners of Henley count older smokers among their clientele as well.
Nicotene content varies
E-cigarettes are usually made of metal parts combined with plastic or glass and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They heat the liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that quickly dissipates when exhaled. The vapor looks like tobacco smoke and can feel like tobacco smoke when taken into the lungs at varying strengths, from no nicotine up to 24 milligrams or more.
Whether vaping is cheaper than a cigarette habit is up to how much is spent on equipment and liquids and how often one vapes. A 15-milliliter bottle of liquid at Henley can go for $12 and may be roughly the equivalent of four packs of cigarettes, depending on the strength of both liquid and leaf cigarette, among other factors like how many puffs a smoker takes in. Rechargeable devices require batteries - another expense - and a starter kit for reuse that comes with a device can run around $66.
By comparison, the cost of a 20-cigarette pack of regular cigarettes can range from about $5 to about $15, depending on state tax and the type of location where they're purchased.
The Food and Drug Administration has not yet stepped in to regulate e-cigs - and their amped-up marketing - but that's likely to happen as some cities and states have already moved to ban public use the way they do tobacco.
Health effects still unknown
While e-liquids and vaping supplies lack oversight and long-term research, they are readily available to all ages online, and at gas stations, bodegas and many drug stores.
Much as movie stars made tobacco smoking seem glamorous in the 1930s and `40s, celebrities have helped fuel interest in vaping.
At the Golden Globes, Leonardo DiCaprio was shown vaping away in the audience. The actor told The Associated Press recently he vapes to "relieve the stress of life."
Other celebrities have signed on as paid e-cig endorsers, including co-host of "The View," Jenny McCarthy, and actor Stephen Dorff, both of whom push Blu, a big player in e-cigs that was recently bought by Big Tobacco's Lorillard.
Dorff, who took up smoking 20 years ago, stuck to Blu's talking points in a recent interview. He described how vaping offers him the freedom to smoke where regular cigarettes are frowned upon.
But wouldn't his loved ones like to see him quit nicotine for good?
"Ah, probably yeah," laughed Dorff, "but there's a lot of bad things in the world, you know. The one thing that I've always enjoyed is smoking. I consider myself a smoker."