KANSAS CITY — Like many a hard-core smoker, Candi McCann found it a bear to quit. Nothing worked. Not the patch. Not those blue smoking cessation pills her doctor prescribed.
Then she tried those electronic cigarettes that produce a steamy vapor instead of smoke. Click, just like that, she went from more than a pack of smokes a day to becoming the Kansas City area’s leading vaping evangelist.
Finally shed of her 21-year smoking habit, the 42-year-old McCann now preaches about the latest vaping gear on her YouTube channel. She helps organize “vape meets” of fellow enthusiasts through the Fountain City Vapor Club. And more recently she has turned her passion into a full-time job, hiring on as manager at the Vapor World store near her home in Lenexa, Kan.
“April 9, 2012, that’s my vape-versery,” she said, taking a drag from a mouthpiece sticking out of a boxy contraption in her palm that was about the size of an eyeglass case.
“I’m not going to tell you this is healthy,” said McCann. “But I can tell you that it is 99 percent better for you than smoking.”
Whether that stat is true, that’s one selling point that keeps customers coming back to the more than three dozen vape shops that have set up in the metro area since 2013. Before, there were few or none.
Then there’s the social aspect that has seen some vaping stores, like Waldo Vapes, becoming something akin to java-free coffee shops, where people gather to shoot the breeze, play games and challenge each other to see who can blow out the biggest cloud of scented vapor.
“It’s becoming a community,” Levi Fields, a 20-year-old student at the culinary school at Johnson County Community College, said as he took a toke in Waldo Vapes’ living-room-like setting. “It’s getting really, really big.”
Supporters see e-cigarettes as a godsend for people trying to reduce or quit smoking, which kills 480,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the trend concerns some health advocates. Scientists don’t yet know much about the health effects of electronic cigarettes, which are largely unregulated and the subject of competing claims.
Critics also contend vaping is trading one form of addiction for another and that the safer-than-cigarettes claims are convincing teens to adopt a nicotine habit they might not have otherwise.
“It is a way to get kids addicted to nicotine,” said Sue Matson, substance abuse prevention coordinator at the Johnson County Mental Health Department. “I’m concerned about the possibility of renormalizing behavior that we have spent a long time getting away from.”
As the federal Food and Drug Administration weighs those arguments in advance of imposing greater regulatory control, there is no debating this: Vaping has gone mainstream in the last couple of years, spawning a more than $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States. Two-thirds of sales are online, but increasingly there are brick-and-mortar stores like the dozens of outlets that have been cropping up across the nation.
Until recently, e-cigarettes were synonymous with the cigarette look-a-likes sold alongside regular smokes in gas station convenience stores — “cig-a-likes,” they’re called. Marketed by Big Tobacco, they are an acceptable alternative to smoking for many smokers, while others dismiss brands like Blu, Vuze and Njoy as unsatisfying substitutes for the real thing.
But that is not the segment seeing the biggest growth and getting the most buzz. Instead, it’s the refillable “open system” vaping product category that is driving an industry that within a decade, one prominent Wall Street analyst predicts, will see more Americans vaping than smoking tobacco.
Open systems allow users to customize their vaping experience.
They can choose among a wide array of flavored liquids — from bubble-gum-flavored to hazelnut butter cream — each of which has various levels of nicotine to none at all. Drops of that “e-juice” are dripped into battery-powered gadgets that look nothing like cigarettes.
They range from rechargeable vaping pens, called that because they look like writing instruments and cost about $25 for a starter kit, to so-called modified systems. Mods, for short, are built from mix-and-match components that can cost as little as $40 to as much as a few hundred dollars. The price goes up along with the wattage options. The more power, the more vapor.
Customers range in motivation, too. Some stop in only when they need to feed their nicotine habit.
“They buy their juice coils once a week and go about their day,” McCann said.
But there is also a dedicated bunch who consider themselves hobbyists. They enjoy sampling different flavors and buying better and more expensive vaping equipment.
And yet as big as vaping has become in a short amount of time, it’s far from being widely accepted outside the subculture that has grown up around it.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the use of e-cigarettes by teenagers had risen sharply, with 13 percent of high schoolers reportedly using them in 2014.
At the same time, though, the number of high school smokers had dropped from 16 percent in 2011 to 9 percent in 2014.
“They (teenagers) believe it’s a safe alternative because that’s what they are being told,” said Kevin Kufeldt, who runs a regional drug treatment center that serves adolescents from across Kansas.
While manufacturers and shop owners say the industry’s products are safe, vaping juices are not tested or regulated. At least one study found that some liquids said to contain no nicotine did, in fact, have nicotine in them.
Many in the industry wouldn’t mind the FDA getting involved for that very reason. One of the biggest impediments to further growth in the category is the loss of consumer confidence in the vapor people are breathing in place of tobacco smoke.
“We believe it’s imperative these factors are addressed promptly,” three analysts who follow the industry at Wells Fargo Securities said in a January report. “If not, we’re concerned that vapor category growth could continue to moderate.”
McCann would be sad if regulation damaged what she considers to be an industry that has helped a lot of people like her cut back on or quit cigarettes entirely.
“It meets my need,” she said. “I don’t smell like smoke anymore. I don’t get bronchitis anymore.”
And she’d miss the folks she’s met at vape meets, where there’s always a bit of horse trading amid the vapor rings and billowing clouds of mist.
“We swap juices and show off our mods,” she said.
And surely, she said, there’s no harm in that.