It started with a hug, or, to be more precise, the withholding of one. "My little sister wouldn't give me a hug. She said I smelled like an ashtray," said Andy Schmid, one of the owners of Buckeye Vapors, a Grove City shop that sells electronic-cigarette - or e-cigarette - devices and the flavored nicotine "juice" that goes in them.
It started with a hug, or, to be more precise, the withholding of one.
“My little sister wouldn’t give me a hug. She said I smelled like an ashtray,” said Andy Schmid, one of the owners of Buckeye Vapors, a Grove City shop that sells electronic-cigarette — or e-cigarette — devices and the flavored nicotine “juice” that goes in them.
This sisterly snub led the longtime smoker to research and try e-cigarettes, which are mostly odorless. Schmid started hanging out and “vaping” at Buckeye Vapors, which was opened in May 2012 by Josh McBride and Allyn Yarger.
“I quit cigarettes in about a week and haven’t had one in a year and seven months,” said Schmid, who eventually bought a piece of the growing business.
“It’s really taking off. Business is going up every month,” McBride said, adding the partners are planning to open two or three more shops and are scouting locations.
Throughout central Ohio and beyond, e-cigarette entrepreneurs are opening shops, distributing e-cigarette supplies and producing and selling more products online.
One of the owners of another local e-cigarette shop has big plans for expansion.
“We’re on the ground floor of this, and I really see it taking off in the next 10 to 15 years and us dominating the Midwest market,” said Dmitry Yakover of AltSmoke, which has e-cigarette shops in Columbus, New Philadelphia and Cincinnati and plans to open several more.
Another local player is Westside Vapor, which distributes e-cigarette products to about 4,000 retail outlets in Ohio and bordering states, and has a shop in Columbus on S. High Street called Just Vapors and another in Navarre, and will soon open its third in Pickerington.
“We’ll probably do $4.5 million in sales this year,” said Jason Gang, owner of Westside Vapor, adding this will double the previous year’s sales. “It’s not often that a new product comes along like this. I used to own a gas station and sold thousands of cartons of cigarettes and always felt kind of guilty about it.”
E-cigarette sales brought in $300 million in 2011, according to a report from Wells Fargo Securities. This jumped to $600 million in 2012 and is expected to surpass $1 billion this year.
However, several issues could snuff out the rapid growth of the e-cigarette industry.
Tobacco companies are among them, in particular, industry leaders Altria Group, Reynolds American and Lorillad. They have taken notice of the increasing sales and are rolling out e-cigarette products.
“We are worried Big Tobacco will jump in and try and put the little guys out of business,” Schmid said.
Other issues weigh on the fledgling e-cigarette industry, including taxes, legislation and health concerns.
Ohio legislators are currently looking at a bill to prohibit those under 18 from using e-cigarettes.
Some opponents agree with the age-limit restriction, but say the bill as written is also an attempt by the major tobacco companies to ensure that e-cigarettes will be taxed at a lower rate than traditional tobacco.
The state currently levies a $1.25 excise tax on a pack of cigarettes, a tax that is not applied to e-cigarette products.
On the health front, “one of the biggest problems is there’s a lot we don’t know about them,” said Shelly Kiser, advocacy director for the American Lung Association in Ohio. “They haven’t been around long enough for long-term studies. And since they’re not regulated by the FDA, there are no quality controls.”
E-cigarettes are cylindrical in shape and often look like a cigarette.
“They’re basically little flashlights, but instead of a bulb, there’s a heating element,” Gang said, adding he sells starter kits for $12 to $15.
Inhaling turns on a pressure-activated switch that heats up the nicotine-infused liquid inside, creating and releasing a vapor that is inhaled and then exhaled. Unlike tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not contain tar and other chemicals, and advocates say this makes them less harmful.
“I can’t say that they’re good for you, but compared to the cigarette butt you flicked before you came into my shop, they’re much better for you,” McBride said.
E-cigarette backers also say they can help longtime addicts stop smoking cigarettes.
Yarger said he and his wife traded in their cigarettes for e-cigarettes five years ago, shortly before the birth of the fourth of their five children.
“I wasn’t strong enough to give them up cold turkey, like Josh, and it took me about three months,” he said of giving up cigarettes. “Now, I can breather better, I can smell better and food tastes better.”
Kiser, from the lung association, disagrees, and says e-cigarettes have not been proved to be smoking-cessation devices and could encourage teens to use them, which could lead them to eventually smoke regular cigarettes.
“Their goal is creating long-term customers,” she said of the tobacco companies.
Others use e-cigarettes to quench their nicotine thirst while they are at venues where smoking is prohibited.
Ohio’s smoke-free act, which was passed in 2006, addresses the burning of tobacco, and does not prohibit the use of e-cigarettes.
At Buckeye Vapors, the specialty is the juice, which is the nicotine-filled, flavored liquid used in e-cigarettes.
The juice at Buckeye Vapors starts with gallon jugs of medical-grade nicotine that McBride said they purchase from a North Carolina supplier.
“It comes in a high dosage, 100 milligrams, that could be lethal,” he said, adding they then cut the strength to 18 milligrams, which McBride said is equivalent to the amount of nicotine in a regular cigarette. This is done by adding propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, and then the flavorings.
Buckeye Vapors has a juice bar, where clients can test different flavors and mixologist Tim Vatic creates new flavors.
“It takes a lot of trial and error and careful measurements,” Vatic said of creating new flavors.
Buckeye Vapors offers more than 300 flavors, including atomic fireball, Kahlua and cream, kettle corn and Boston cream pie. Those trying to break their nicotine addiction can order juice with lower and lower doses of nicotine.
A starter e-cigarette kit at the store costs about $35 and includes a dose of juice.
A 5-milliliter refill costs $4.99 and will last a day or two for a typical smoker, Schmid said. A 15-milliliter bottle costs $8.99 and lasts about 10 days, while the largest bottle, at four ounces and $44.99, lasts about a month.
This makes e-cigarettes cheaper than standard cigarettes, which cost about $5.60 a pack.
“I’ve tried to quit before and normally I last a few days and then I smoke one,” said Hanna Drennan, 18, who bought a starter kit and some juice at Buckeye Vapors recently.
She plans to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine in her juice.
“I think e-cigarettes are better for me and eventually I’ll use less and less and then no nicotine,” Drennan said.