March 26, 2014 Teens usually start smoking cigarettes to be cool or rebellious, or because their friends are doing it. These days, though, the cigarettes they smoke are more and more of the electronic variety not tobacco.

The number of middle school and high school students who’d tried the candy like flavors of e cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012. About 1.78 million U.S. students had tried e cigarettes as of 2012.

A study published earlier this month shows that middle school and high school students who smoke e cigarettes also are more likely to smoke tobacco cigarettes. While that doesn’t mean e cigarettes lead kids to smoke tobacco cigarettes, it does show a strong link between the two habits.

Further research shows that 70% of adult smokers start before age 18.

The growing popularity of e cigarettes among adults as an aid to quit smoking and among teens has turned them into a $1.5 billion a year industry. Revenue could grow to $3 billion in 5 years.

Research into their potential effects on health, though, is still in the early phases. There s enough concern that the FDA is considering regulations.

For teens who have never smoked, e cigarettes are an introduction to nicotine, which is highly addictive. Public health officials are worried this could lead to tobacco use.

For adults who smoke tobacco cigarettes, e cigarettes may not be as dangerous, because they don t have the same toxins as the tobacco kind, except for the nicotine.

“There’s enough data to conclude that they are much safer than regular cigarettes, and for smokers who are having trouble quitting using other methods, they’re much better off switching to electronic cigarettes,” says Michael B. Siegel, MD. He’s a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

The data don t explore the long terms health effects of e cigarettes, though. “We don’t know the absolute risks whether, over a very long period of time, the e cigarette might have harms associated with it,” Siegel says. “They haven’t been on the market long enough to understand if they may have long term side effects.”

And it s still unclear whether they help people kick the habit. One recent study concludes e cigarettes didn t lead to quitting or less smoking.

The e-cig industry will choke on new fda regulations—except big tobacco

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Image Ben Richmond

E cigarettes are at a crossroads. Depending on what happens next, the electronic tobaccoless smokes will either rot in the land of once hyped forgotten gadgets, or would be smokers will instead spend late nights puffing away in a hip sweet smelling vape lounge with a beer in one hand and a pimped out mod in the other.

Everything hangs on the Food and Drug Administration&#39 s newly proposed plan for how it will regulate the emerging industry. If the FDA rules stand, the restrictions could wind up choking small vape businesses and clear the path for big tobacco firms poised to cash in on the trend.

Per the FDA s proposal, any e cig product made after 2007, including new models, must get FDA approval to be sold. That means hiring experts to do medical research to determine the health impact of the device, which can take months and cost an estimated $3 4 million and take 5,000 hours for each application.

Needless to say, most of the merchants selling nicotine infused liquid for vaporizers don&#39 t have that kind of cash. Vape shops which, despite statewide vaping bans and increased pressure from the government to stymie the trend are popping up all over the country would be left with no suppliers to source products for their stores from.

Beyond Vape opens its second location in Brooklyn on Friday. Image Ben Richmond

“There&#39 s no vape shop anymore if this law goes through,” Greg Conley, former legislative director for the Consumer Advocates for Smokefree Alternatives Association (CASAA), told me. He&#39 s now president of the American Vaping Association (yeah that s a thing), and working with other advocates to convince the FDA to revise its rules.

The tobacco companies can spare the cash, and each megacorporation has its own e cigarette brand on the market. The problem is, those products suck.

That&#39 s not just an anti establishment bias talking the difference between pre loaded cigalikes sold by Lorillard (the Blu e cig) or Reynolds tobacco (the Vuse e cig) and the customizable DIY mods beloved by the vape community is like the difference between instant coffee and responsibly sourced beans hand ground and brewed with a high end filter by a loving if pretentious barista.

Walking into a vape shop is not unlike a specialty coffee shop or gastropub or wine bar you can sample the menu and talk to an expert connoisseur about the product. Down the road, if business continues to boom, you can imagine shops applying for a beer and wine license, bringing in a DJ and turning into a nightlife venue reminiscent of the days of cloudy smoke filled bars but without the stench of burning tobacco.

In my Brooklyn hipster neighborhood, the second e cig shop, Beyond Vape, will open this Friday. I stopped by the other day to check it out.

“The innovation in this space out of control.”

As I sat at the counter sampling a whiskey flavored e juice, Chris Chuang, the owner, talked to me about vape culture. Hardcore users will spend hours watching a video tutorial to make their own coils, and customize their hand crafted, made in the USA piece with an organic cotton wick for a thicker cloud of vapor.

Fans shine up and show off and care for their mods like you would a new car, he said. E juice companies create flavor recipes like a mixologist would craft the perfect blend for a cocktail. “Virgin Vapors organic, celestial honeydew is popular,” said Chuang. “Epic Juice s apple jax tastes like Apple Jacks cereal and airheads tastes like the candy.”

Beyond Vape and other vaporiums sell hundreds of different liquid flavors fruity, dessert, candy, coffee, nutty, so on. “We carry these flavors because adults like them and they sell, not because minors like them,” Chuang said. “It also helps them to stop craving the tobacco flavor in cigarettes.”

The shop has roughly 30 brands of mods with new ones coming in weekly. The most expensive is the Zodiac, which will run you $250 it s made in Korea and has zodiac animals engraved on the side a more “artsy, designy mod,” explained Chuang.

The Zodiac mod, in the center, is hand engraved and sells for $250. Image Ben Richmond

“The innovation in this space out of control,” he said. “People care about the materials that are used in the mod. The best conductivity is copper. People like to have silver plated copper contacts on the top and bottom pieces that connect with the battery in order to give a more powerful, consistent hit … People rely on YouTube reviewers for input on what to buy next. The most popular reviewers are Grimm Green, Phil Busardo, Rip Trippers, and Todd UK.”

By comparison, disposable e cigarettes like the ones you can buy at the convenience store are a very different beast. The battery is rechargeable, but once the juice in the cartridge is empty, the device is toast. They come pre loaded with one or two vaguely tobacco like flavors, and that s all you have to choose from.

The fear in the vaping community is that FDA regulations would inadvertently (or purposefully, as the more radical viewpoint goes) favor the big tobacco companies disposable cigs, essentially bringing the independent e cig industry to a screeching halt.

Whether or not that&#39 s a good thing hangs on the controversial health question, and that debate is raging a cursory Google search turns up hundreds of articles on the topic just in the last few days.

The scientific research is inconclusive, and more troubling, it s hard to parse which studies are objective. Conely and other e cig advocates I talked to claim the negative studies being fed to the FDA and the press by the Centers for Disease Control and various American health associations are pushing an abstinence only prohibitionist agenda forged by decades of fighting against smoking.

It boils down to the common consensus that vaping is better for you than smoking, but not better than abstaining altogether and breathing clean air. And the jury s still out on how much healthier than traditional butts the electronic versions are.

At the same time, there s not much evidence beyond word of mouth that the electronic devices really help people quit smoking either, and some recent studies suggested certain vape pens also burn hot enough to release carcinogens. What s more, health advocates worry the flavors and ad campaigns are marketing the devices to kids, and reversing the hard won stigma of cigarette smoking in the US, which, as the Economist astutely described, “now ranks somewhere between theft and public indecency.”

Since the FDA classifies e cigarettes as a tobacco product, because the nicotine infused liquid is derived from tobacco plants, vape companies have to prove they&#39 re “protecting the public health” to get agency approval a tall order amid this muddied scientific argument.

Vapor liquids would be classed as tobacco products under the new federal rules. Image Ben Richmond

That s the rock. The hard place is that e cig companies also can&#39 t expressly market their product as a smoking cessation tool because that would classify it as a drug and subject it to even stricter regulations. Meanwhile, Big Pharma is just as keen as Big Tobacco to squash the growing industry US e cig sales are at $724 million so far this year, up 72 percent from last year, according to Nielsen which is likely cutting into profits from nicotine patches and other smoking cessation treatments.

What you wind up with is a big hot mess. Chuang says his vape shops he has another store on a busy street in Manhattan technically don&#39 t sell e cigarettes at all. He sells bottles of nic juice and metal devices that, “you could stick a light bulb in it and call it a flashlight.” The shop also stocks nic free liquid, which then wouldn t be su
bject to regulations either. He also doesn&#39 t explicitly market vaping as a way to quit smoking, but has plaques hung on the wall proudly displaying the date of customers&#39 last cigarette.

He told me he supports federal regulations a sentiment I ve heard before because it can help ensure the products are safe. (One concern is shoddy, unregulated device manufacturing that leads to e cigs exploding in people&#39 s mouths.) But, he clarified, that&#39 s only as long as the new rules are enforced fairly.