Smoke Signals 

As unregulated vaping grows in popularity, Idaho health experts question long-term effects

Burt Mauer took a deep drag of Strawberry Milkshake and exhaled a large cloud from his electronic cigarette.

Of all the flavors of e-liquids available, Mauer said he prefers Strawberry Milkshake. He insisted the use of electronic cigarettes is a valid way to get off smoking or chewing tobacco without losing the oral fixation commonly associated with tobacco use.

"I started vaping because I wanted to quit chewing tobacco," said Mauer, 30. "Three years ago, I lived with a roommate who had a kid that figured out how to unscrew the caps of [chewing] tobacco containers. I've been a vaper ever since."

The vape industry boasts a wide range of available devices and flavors. Mauer said he also appreciates that vaping offers a range of nicotine-content levels.

"I've gone from using flavors that contain 32 milligrams of nicotine content to 3 milligrams of nicotine content in each bottle of e-liquid I purchase," he said.

In 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration proposed extending regulations to electronic cigarettes to be classified as tobacco products. Along with age restrictions, the FDA says electronic smoking devices should be subject to the same scientific review and health warnings as cigarettes.

Electronic smoking devices have become a common sight in the Gem State. In 2014, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported 6.2 percent of Idahoans ages 18 and up had tried an e-cigarette in 2014, compared to 15 percent who tried tobacco. The statistics came from the agency's annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey.

According to Ivie Smart, program manager for the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, Idaho, a lot of people continue to smoke and vape. In the same risk behavior survey, 25 percent of Idahoan adults reported trying both.

"[Vaping devices] are not FDA-regulated products," Smart said. "We are not going to promote electronic smoking devices as tobacco cessation products until we know more about their long-term health effects."

Carl Hamilton owns and operates Boise-based ECIGS by S. Wicks, one of the scores of Treasure Valley vape shops. Hamilton said he sells high-quality e-liquids and e-cigarettes. Located two blocks from the Idaho Statehouse at 208 Ninth St., Hamilton's shop bears a sign reading "Stay and Vape A While" on the front window and inside also features black leather couches and a flat-screen TV.

A smoker for more than two decades, Hamilton said he switched to vaping and has since felt the benefits, adding "it's had a tremendous effect on my health." Hamilton pointed to an independent review published by Public Health of England in 2015 that concluded e-cigarettes are around 95 percent less harmful than smoking.

Hamilton insists on selling "authentic" products. With no regulations on the retail of e-liquids or vaporizers, Hamilton said it's up to the shop owner to determine the safety of each product. To that end, he only sells e-liquids that are made in America and regularly asks for documentation proving each liquid has been tested for toxic ingredients.

"It's basically up to the retailer to ensure that what he or she is carrying is up to the safest standard possible," Hamilton said. "And then it's up to the manufacturer to ensure it's clean and safe so that those shops will stock their stuff."

Youth rates of e-cigarette use are increasing. A 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found e-cigarette use in middle- and high-school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.

Idaho is among the many states to make the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors illegal. That's an idea Donovan Johns, owner and manager of Volt Vapes, a retail store with two separate locations in the Treasure Valley, agrees with. Johns said that from the outset of his business, he's been very "pro 18-and-over" for users of his products. That said, Johns added that "smoking and vaping are two totally different things."

Johns oversees the manufacturing of his own brand of e-liquids under the brand Vape Fuel. Unlike other vape shops, his started as an e-liquid manufacturer before expanding into retail sales. Johns also has a significant online presence and advertises frequently.

"All the e-liquids that we sell are designed and made in the Treasure Valley," he said. "We manufacture our own liquids in an FDA-regulated prep kitchen using a combination of the four main ingredients found in e-liquids, of which all but nicotine you can buy at retail stores."

At Volt Vapes, e-liquids are sold in four categories of sizes: 10 milliliter, 15 ml, 30 ml and 60 ml, with prices ranging from $5 to $25 per bottle for standard flavors. The nicotine content of each bottle can range from 0 milligrams to 24 mg. Vape pens sell between $12 and $200, with most customers, according to Johns, choosing to pay between $30-$50 per device.

"We also have a few flavors that are very consistent: Beetlejuice, Tigerjuice, Watermelon Kiwi and Strawberry Milkshake," he said. "Otherwise, we see a lot of our flavors go in waves of popularity across all age groups."

Looking to the future, both Johns and Hamilton said the Treasure Valley vaping marketplace appears to be "saturated." By their estimates, as many as 40 vape shops have opened and closed in the past five years.

"But nationally, I think it is still very much a growing industry," Johns said.

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