For many, one of the hardest things in life is to quit smoking.
For Thursday's American Cancer Society's "Great American Smokeout," smokers across the country are trying to find a way to kick a habit they know is bad for their health.
But is the new habit some are taking up as an alternative to smoking also dangerous?
At Fifth and South Streets, tucked between a phone store and a Chinese restaurant, sits Love Vape. The shop opened just a few weeks ago to spread a trend that's already a big hit on the West Coast, said Raymond Ross, one of the co-owners.
"Love Vape is Philadelphia's first, premiere 'vape' lounge. We sell electronic cigarettes, e-liquids, cartomizers, atomizers, pretty much accessories for vaping," Ross said.
It joins a number of established and soon-to-open vape shops in the Philadelphia area where e-cigarette smokers gather to puff on the tobacco-less devices that are about the size or slightly bigger than regular cigarettes.
Some smoke e-cigarettes simply because they enjoy it, Ross said. Others want to quit smoking traditional cigarettes.
"Pretty much all types of e-cigarettes work the same way," he explained. "There's some type of battery component with some type of tank set-up and a coil and a wick. The battery burns the wick, the wick burns the juice and you inhale the vapor."
Some of the liquids or "juice" marketed to fill the tank contain nicotine, others claim they do not. A starter kit runs about $30, but vapers can spend as much or as little as they want to replenish their supplies.
All that and a potential hobby
Holding up his Mechanical Mod e-cigarette, Ross said vaping can become a hobby.
"There's a lot of jargon to it," he said, leaving no doubt as he launches into a description of his current setup. "What I'm using is a Nemesis clone with an RSST tank with 28 gauge wrapped eight times around a cotton wick. So for those who are vaping and know about this, that's my setup that I'm using."
Like similar shops, Love Vape isn't just a store. It has a lounge with a row of seating along the wall just feet from the retail space.
"There's a kind of misconception with using these things," Ross said. "A lot of people aren't familiar with it, so you've got a lot of stereotypes. You know, they might think it's used for other things. We're not a smoke shop, we're a vape shop. We deal primarily with electronic cigarettes that use an e-liquid which consists of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol -- all natural ingredients -- which are not harmful to the body."
Vaping helped Ross quit smoking traditional cigarettes. And it's made his girlfriend happier.
"There's a whole plethora of flavors from fruity flavors, cakey flavors to bakery flavors to even old-school tobacco flavors," he said. "Honeydew smells a lot better than an ashtray would."
A 'wild, wild West' of e-cigarettes
Health professionals point out that e-cigarettes have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a safe and effective method for quitting traditional cigarettes.
And Erika Sward of the American Lung Association is concerned by the lack of information surrounding the accelerating trend.
"When FDA did an initial study of the components in this liquid, that people are inhaling into their lungs, they found some of the same toxic ingredients that you see in anti-freeze," Sward said. "They also found that the ones claiming not to have nicotine actually did.
"And so what we know is that we need FDA oversight because we don't know what the short-term and the long-term health consequences of their use may be," she said.
While a proposal for FDA regulation awaits action, e-cigarette makers freely claim their products can help smokers quit. That claim is baseless, said Sward, adding that the challenge is compounded by the variety of products that fall under the category of e-cigarettes.
"The use of e-cigarettes in general is completely unregulated," she said. "It's like the wild, wild West out there and there's no sheriff in town."
Different states and localities have the authority to restrict e-cigarette use in public places and in workplaces, something the American Lung Association encourages states to do.
While many states prohibit the sell of e-cigarette products to minors, in other states, Sward said, it's completely legal. And the vape shops are popping up across the country.
No legal restriction on vaping in Philly
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health's director of policy and planning is aware of the proliferation of vape lounges. But the e-cigarettes don't fall under Philadelphia's smoking ban, which applies to traditional cigarettes and cigars, said Giridhar Mallya.
So in Philly, he said, people can legally smoke an e-cigarette in a restaurant or a bar or a store.
"One important question we still don't have the answer to is not only are the e-cigarettes dangerous to the person who is using them, but does the vapor from the e-cigarettes like secondhand smoke have some potential harm on people that might be exposed to the smoke," Mallya said.
In the absence of those answers, some businesses have taken it upon themselves to create e-cigarette policies, he said.
Anthony Fanelli plans to open Fishtown Vapes in the next few months on the 1600 block of Frankford Avenue. He intends to stock starter kits, mechanical mods, custom juices -- "everything that you need whether you're a beginner or an advanced vaper, and all the knowledge that you need to come in for your smoking alternative or a way to quit smoking."
Tired of spending money on cigarettes and "smelling like cigarettes," Fanelli said he began vaping about three years ago. He picked up his gear at a friend's shop in South Jersey called Nine South.
Providing space for communal experience
"I decided to open a shop, let people have a place to ... hang out and learn and get products in the city instead of ordering online," he said.
Back at Love Vape, Ross said customers say they're glad to see a bricks-and-mortar store selling e-cigarettes and accessories.
While he knows there are still a lot of unanswered questions about e-cigarettes and that they are not endorsed by the FDA as a way to quit smoking, Ross said he's glad he started vaping. They've worked for him after failed attempts using patches and other traditional smoking-cessation methods.
And the store, he said, is about more than selling a product, it's about connecting members of the vaping community.
"You don't have to be alone with vaping. This is kind of like a haven for vapers," he said. "Getting a chance to meet with other vapers who are experimenting as well, I think it's a good thing for people to come together."
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