Two new Bend businesses want to cash in on the growing e-cigarette market — but not by simply selling them.
They make the liquid that contains the nicotine and other ingredients that’s heated to create the vapor that users inhale, and the owners have created lounges — or vape shops — where consumers can test different e-cigarette flavors and watch TV or play board games.
The e-cigarette market has been booming, with sales doubling annually in some years. Unlike traditional cigarettes, the electronic versions are not regulated. But that’s likely to change soon.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed rules in April that would extend the agency’s authority to e-cigarettes, and the Oregon Legislature considered bills in the 2014 session to tax e-cigarettes and to restrict minors’ access to them, but the proposed legislation died in committee.
Spencer Knowles, owner of High Mountain Mist, a new vape shop on NE Division Street, considers the lack of regulation a selling point for his liquid, which he makes in Arizona.
“It’s an unregulated industry, which means people can make e-liquid in a factory in China. But there is no government or customs department to make sure what (the manufacturers) say is on the label is actually in the bottle,” he said. “We bypass all of those questions by making our own e-liquid. We’re self-regulating to the point where we can say exactly what is on our bottle is in our e-juice.”
Knowles and his store manager, Gavin Zamora, said they believe the FDA should regulate ingredients and the labeling of e-liquid and set an age limit for consumption.
“This industry has been around nine years now, and there are studies that show it’s about a $2 billion industry,” Knowles said. “Why hasn’t the FDA taken it upon themselves to test it already? There’s tens of thousands of Americans ingesting it.”
Those who oppose e-cigarettes say they pose a danger of poisoning from drinking or directly inhaling the e-liquid, and they point to a lack of standards for the level of nicotine and other chemicals in the liquid. They also say the flavorings and vaping devices make e-cigarettes appealing to teens.
But advocates for the battery-operated devices say they are a healthier alternative to cigarettes and can be a tool to help smokers quit.
Regardless, the number of e-cigarette retailers and sales of the product are on the rise.
E-cigarettes are taking about 1 percent of the total tobacco share, making it around a $1.9 billion industry, according to a March report from Wells Fargo Securities Analyst Bonnie Herzog.
While sales of traditional cigarettes have been declining about 3 to 4 percent a year, the report states, the e-cigarette market has been growing. The rate has slowed, but it’s still estimated at more than 20 percent annually, according to the report, which says the consumption of e-cigarettes could surpass conventional cigarettes within the next decade.
E-cigarettes come in several models. Some, called cigalikes, look like regular cigarettes. Others, known as advanced personalized vaporizers, have more controls and a high-tech look. They can be refilled with different flavors.
While retailers surveyed in the Wells Fargo report were concerned FDA regulation could hinder the growth of vaporizers and vape shops, Brennan Venturi, co-owner of Vape Game on NE Third Street, said he’s not worried.
“The smaller ones (cigalikes) have a really low battery rating, and they just don’t last as long,” he said. “Realistically, they’re both vaporizers. They’re both doing the same thing; it’s just one is a higher quality than the other.”
He said Vape Game only sells vaporizers, and agrees with experts that the market is going in that direction.
Venturi opened the first of three Oregon Vape Game locations in Springfield in August. The store has gone from about 20 to 60 transactions a day.
Like High Mountain Mist, Venturi said Vape Game also makes and sells its own e-liquid. He sells 30 flavors in his Bend store, and the business makes 15.
“It’s less expensive, and we wanted to hit the whole sales market,” he said.
Knowles of High Mountain Mist started on the manufacturing side of the e-cigarette industry. He co-owns Sonoran Vape Solutions, he said, a lab located in Phoenix that started three months ago. He hopes to eventually open a lab in Central Oregon.
“I went ahead and took the liberty of designing a juice line specifically for Bend and went for flavors that we thought would be good for a new market where people are new to it,” he said. “We have a lot of tobaccos and menthols, but also your fruits and desserts.”
Knowles sells 16 different flavors at his Bend store and named most with references to Central Oregon, including Paulina Peach and Central Oregon Caramel Cheesecake. In addition to e-liquid, the vape shop sells batteries and tanks, which range from $15 to $175, along with other accessories.
But for both Knowles and Venturi, their shops are more than just businesses. They’re places for smokers who want to try an alternative to cigarettes and find a sense of community.
Knowles said he plans to have board games like chess during the week and DJs on weekend nights, while Venturi said Vape Game has sporting events on TV and offers video games. Both locations are aiming to have a lounge vibe.
“Vaping was the only alternative that worked for me, and it turns out it’s a lot of fun as well,” Venturi said, referring to his battle to quit smoking.
According to the FDA, the health affects of e-cigarettes cannot be determined because there is insufficient data.
“While e-cigarette aerosol may contain fewer toxicants than cigarette smoke, studies evaluating whether e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes are inconclusive,” according to publications from FDA staff. “Some evidence suggests that e-cigarette use may facilitate smoking cessation, but definitive data are lacking.”
While the FDA may need more information, some smokers have found e-cigarettes to be an effective way to wean themselves from nicotine, according to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association.
“There is also a lot of real-world evidence and even some studies that strongly indicate that e-cigarettes are an effective alternative to smoking,” the association’s website states.
However, according to the association, the majority of e-cigarette users treat the devices as an alternate source of nicotine and not as a nicotine-cessation program.
Bend resident David Montgomery is one of those users.
For 22 years, Montgomery smoked cigarettes, but for the past year and a half, he’s been puffing on an e-cigarette.
“I didn’t get into it to quit smoking,” said Montgomery as he sat at the tasting bar at High Mountain Mist. “I got into it for an alternative.”
A cheaper, healthier alternative, he added. Montgomery said he’s gone from spending $200 on cigarettes a month, to about $50 on e-cigarette supplies.
“I feel better than I did when I was smoking cigarettes,” he said. “I don’t have that … smoker’s cough anymore.”