At Smokin’ Legal Vaperz, Alex Overman can try out more than 260 juice flavors for his electronic vaping device.
His current favorite is lime cheesecake.
“Instead of stinking like cigarettes, I smell like limes,” said Overman, a former smoker and a customer at the North Division Street store, who credits e-cigarettes for helping him kick a three-pack-a-day habit.
Managers at the Smokin’ Legal Vaperz say most of their clients are former smokers who’ve turned to vaping as a healthier alternative to cigarettes.
But the store’s ability to demonstrate the use of vaping devices – and allow customers to test flavors – could be prohibited under new Spokane Regional Health District regulations.
The proposal is part of the health district’s effort to extend prohibitions on smoking in public places to vaping devices. Anywhere that smoking is forbidden, vaping would be forbidden, too, said Paige McGowan, the health district’s coordinator of tobacco, electronic cigarettes and marijuana prevention.
That means no vaping in indoor public spaces or at worksites, even for vaping retailers.
About a half-dozen Washington counties – including King and Snohomish – have adopted similar rules, and others are considering them. McGowan said counties are acting on concerns about the health effects of nicotine delivery in an aerosol form, including vaping’s allure to teenagers. Federal studies show that teens who have never smoked or used other tobacco products are taking up vaping.
“We don’t know the long-term impacts of breathing in this type of aerosol,” McGowan said. “We don’t know what bystanders are being exposed to.”
But the mosaic of regulations being adopted by counties concerns the nonprofit Washington Vape Association, which would prefer to see the state create uniform rules.
“We think it’s far more sensible, productive and logical if there is statewide legislation,” said Joe Baba, the association’s chairman and co-founder. “We’re urging caution and patience to the counties, to see what the 2016 legislative session produces.”
Last year, the Washington Legislature considered licensing requirements for vaping retailers, but the proposal didn’t become law.
Baba said most association members support restrictions on vaping in indoor public places, with exceptions for vaping stores open to individuals 18 and older. Currently, tobacco products can only be sold to people 18 and older, but state regulations don’t prohibit younger teens from visiting vaping stores.
“We believe in educating (adult) customers that come into the store on how to use vaping devices properly … and offering a variety of flavor choices so they can find the one that will help them quit smoking,” said Baba, who is the co-owner of Vaporland stores in Snohomish County and of Twilight Vapor, a marketing company.
McGowan, of the Spokane Regional Health District, said she hasn’t seen any pending state legislation that restricts vaping in public places, but if the state adopts rules, they would take precedence over the county’s actions.
At Smokin’ Legal Vaperz’s three stores in Spokane County, access is already restricted to people 18 and older, said Luke Patterson, an employee.
A few of the customers are what Patterson calls “hobbyists,” who enjoy the art of blowing vapor. But most are former smokers who are gradually reducing the nicotine content in the liquid solution used in vaping devices, he said.
“We ask what brand they’re smoking, and how many cigarettes per day,” he said. “That allows us to match their nicotine levels. In most cases, we’re reluctant to sell to people who are just starting.”
But vaping’s effectiveness for smoking cessation remains a matter of scientific inquiry and debate. And the jury is still out on the long-term health impacts of vaping.
McGowan cites U.S. Food and Drug Administration studies that found heavy metals, formaldehyde and other cancer-causing agents in the inhaled vapor. An article on the Seattle-King County Public Health Department’s website also said exhaled vapor exposes bystanders to nicotine, which is highly addictive.
Patterson cites competing studies, which said the research results can be skewed by use of a mechanical inhaler, which amplifies what people would breathe into their lungs.
Overman, 23, the Smokin’ Legal Vaperz customer, said he’s convinced vaping helped him quit smoking, a habit he started at 16.
“After the first month, I could take a walk without wheezing,” he said. “I don’t get colds anymore, and I can actually go to the gym and work out.”
During the two years he’s been vaping, Overman said he’s reduced the amount of nicotine in his e-cigarettes from 24 milligrams to 3 milligrams per milliliter. His eventual goal is to be nicotine-free.
When he’s visiting family in Spokane, Overman frequently visits the store on North Division. He enjoys hanging out, testing products and talking to the staff. In Everett, where he lives, Snohomish County’s health department recently put restrictions on vaping stores.
Only one employee can demonstrate vaping products at a time. The stores must have ventilation equipment, and only five seats are allowed at the testing counter. Health officials don’t want stores to create a “vaping lounge” atmosphere, where customers are encouraged to linger, said Heather Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County health department.
The rules, adopted in early December, have changed the experience of being in a vaping store in Snohomish County, Overman said.
“They can’t have couches or TVs,” he said of retailers. And after about 30 minutes, customers are encouraged to move on, Overman said.