PORTLAND — Cigarettes may be a health hazard, but they’re a hard habit to break.
Now, a growing trend called “vaping” is offering an alternative for smokers who wish to quit, and some Mainers are finding business success in the process.
Old Port Vape, at 53 Market St., is a locally owned business dedicated to guiding customers in quitting tobacco products once and for all.
Co-owners John Kreis and Alex Russak opened OPV, the only vape shop in Maine that’s a member of the Smoke Free Alternative Tobacco Association, in June 2014, with aspirations to change lives.
“Our goal is to provide Mainers with the best experience that this exciting new harm-reducing choice offers,” Kreis said.
OPV is also a member of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association.
Luke Phillips, an OPV customer, said he was a “pack-a-day” cigarette smoker before turning to “vaping” through the use of electronic cigarettes, also known as “e-cigs.”
“I tried everything,” Phillips said recently at OPV. “The gum, the patches, even Wellbutrin.”
To his surprise, e-cigs have worked; Phillips said he hasn’t had so much as a “drag” in the month and a half since he started vaping.
He welcomes the changes.
“Overall I feel so much better; I breathe better, smell better, and I’m beginning to taste food a whole lot better,” Phillips said as he made his purchase.
E-cigs are handheld devices the size of a pen. They include an atomizer, a rechargeable battery, and a cartridge that contains “e-liquid,” also known as “e-juice.”
The liquid heats when inhaled by the user, and produces visible vapor, intended to mimic the act of smoking and to satisfy the smoker’s visceral need for hand-to-mouth motion.
Premium e-liquid is composed of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, natural and artificial flavors, and nicotine.
The intent is to wean smokers off nicotine by slowly reducing doses after they’ve quit traditional cigarettes.
There’s a sense of community at Old Port Vape. No one wants to start smoking cigarettes again.
Kevin Michael, 27, and Chris Dumont, 23, who work at OPV, have both been cigarette free for one year since switching to vapes. Dumont and Michael said they have reduced their nicotine intake via vaping, from 18 milligrams in the beginning to 3 milligrams now.
Michael said he barely looked back at tobacco after being introduced to vaping.
“I actually took two drags off a cigarette after I quit,” he said, “and I thought, ‘this is disgusting, I’d rather be tasting butter caramel.’”
Butter caramel is one of 50 vape flavors available at OPV.
Michael said he has enjoyed the detoxifying effects from cutting out tobacco.
“I can actually run now,” he said with a laugh, “and I’m burning my friends in ice hockey who still smoke.”
Dumont said she stopped smoking the day she started vaping. Based on her own success, she turned her mom onto the trend.
“I bought my mom a vape and it’s been three weeks since her last cigarette,” she said. “That’s the longest she’s gone without a smoke in 51 years.”
Richard Eden, another OPV customer, said he wishes he could have done the same for his dad.
“My dad smoked all his life,” Eden said. “I tried to get him to try vaping, but he refused. I don’t want to go out like that.”
But not all e-cigs are created equal.
“The e-cigs we sell here aren’t like the ones you buy at a gas station,” Michael said. The differences between high-end electronic cigarettes at OPV and disposable e-cigs that can be bought anywhere, he said, are often what’s inside and quality control – not to mention price, since OPV’s devices can cost as much as $100.
“If you’re interested in quitting through vaping,” Dumont added, “go to a vape shop and talk to someone, preferably a shop that deals only with vaping.”
According to Michael and Dumont, a good experience with vaping is not typically available from “head shops,” which sell marijuana paraphernalia. There’s also skepticism in learning about vaping from a store that sells tobacco, like a health store selling cigarettes.
“We don’t buy our liquids from any companies associated with tobacco.” Dumont said.
Despite the anecdotal, personal success stories, health organizations are not advocates for e-cigs.
Ed Miller, senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association in Augusta, said he’s disappointed that the federal Food and Drug Administration has not regulated e-cigs.
Miller’s concern correlates with the growth of electronic cigarette use among teenagers.
According a National Youth Tobacco Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the number of young people who never smoked traditional cigarettes, but started using electronic cigarettes, has skyrocketed from 80,000 to 260,000 since the vaporizing devices became available.
Miller said he worries that e-cigs will become the new “Joe Camel,” and lure kids to the smoking habit.
“We don’t want people who are addicted to nothing becoming addicted to something,” he said.
Bethany Sanborn, of the Public Health Division in the Portland Health and Human Services Department, also expressed alarm at the trend.
“Customers don’t know how much nicotine they’re getting, or exactly what they’re inhaling through the vapor,” Sanborn said of the unregulated industry.
Both Miller and Sanborn are advocates for the public’s knowledge on electronic cigarettes, so users can make informed decisions.
“The public deserves to know how (e-cigs) affect them. It’s a matter of giving the public the right information,” Miller said.
When asked about small businesses, like OPV, that seem to care about premium ingredients, proper use, and their customer base, Miller said “there’s no doubt in my mind that people have found this as a successful way to get off combustible cigarettes, but this is about a broader public policy.”
Similarly, Sanborn said, “we don’t want to discredit individual success stories, however, we have concerns.”
Miller said he doubts, however, that studies of e-cigs will produce convincing findings.
“It could be that (e-cigs are) more harmful (than tobacco) in this way, but less harmful in that way,” he said.
For vape users who have found a new freedom from tobacco, however, the smaller doses of nicotine and the potential side-effects of long-term e-cig use may apparently be worth the risks.
“It isn’t a perfect industry, but we’re moving away from (cigarettes, which) we know kill us. It’s a step in the right direction.” Kreis said of the vaping movement.
For Kreis and Russak, witnessing the progress in customers reaffirms their mission.
“When people come in who are 60 years old, and are able to quit cigarettes for the first time, it cements my reasons for opening this store.” Russak said.
“Vaping is about changing humanity’s relationship with tobacco.” Kreis added.
When asked for his favorite thing about vaping, another OPV customer put it simply: “It’s not smoking.”
Co-owners Alex Russak and John Kreis at Old Port Vape on Market Street in Portland.
Old Port Vape co-owner Alex Russak displays an assortment of vaping devices, which range in cost from $55-$100.