It's Sunday, and a mass of teenagers lugging skateboards shuffles into Smart Smoke in River Park Square. One of them, Alex, wants to find a replacement for a broken part on his electronic cigarette. He’s 16.
“I need you all to show your IDs,” salesman Phoenix Downer says. “If you’re not 18, you need to leave.”
The entire store — sleek and black, with an iPhone-like aesthetic — is devoted to one product: the electronic cigarette, a battery-powered device that vaporizes a nicotine liquid that’s purportedly free of harmful carcinogens. Resembling cylindrical whistles, these cigarettes are double the size of a normal, non-electronic, tobacco cigarette.
In only two years, Smart Smoke has gone from a small Spokane Valley mall kiosk run by a former car salesman to a thriving business with six locations and over 10,000 customers. But with the explosion of the store’s popularity — and the popularity of e-cigarettes in general — came the inevitable aftershocks: fights over regulation, health claims and marketing.
Next week, both the Spokane County Board of Commissioners and the Spokane City Council will discuss separately whether minors should buy e-cigarettes, or whether kids should possess them at all.
Smart Smoke claims it cards all customers, as a rule. But it’s not illegal to sell to minors.
They appear to care about health at Smart Smoke, where you’ll see brochures plastered with alarming phrases like “each year tobacco kills 450,000 people in the U.S.” and “on average, smoking cigarettes shortens your life by 20 years.”
The store is only one of dozens offering e-cigarettes in the Spokane area, including Vapors — also in River Park Square — BestEciggy and Freedom Electronic Cigarettes. One of them, Addison E-Cigarettes, even sells a nicotine liquid called “Spokane Super Sauce.” Nearly all of them, the Spokane Regional Health Department says, claim they refuse to sell to minors.
In July, the department decided to test these claims. It sent out 15-year-olds to see if they would be banned from purchasing e-cigarettes or nicotine vials. Nearly every vendor in Spokane failed the test. Two vials of nicotine liquid were sold to 15-year-olds at the Smart Smoke in River Park Square. The local chain’s stores at Northtown and in the Valley Mall sold to minors on two separate occasions.
Since then, Scott explains, the business has spent around $3,000 to implement an ID scan age-verification system. Employees who don’t check IDs will be written up and, if it happens three times, terminated. In a press release, company CEO Joshua Jamerson says he supports efforts to ban the sale to minors.
Which is what Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard wants, too. He says his mother die of cancer, and that he grew up under a literal cloud of cigarette smoke.
On hearing the health department’s presentation about how easy it was for Spokane teens to buy e-cigarettes, he demanded action.
He says he’s worried that, without regulation, kids may “light up” inside the classroom and that e-cigarettes will be a stepping-stone to real cigarettes.
“The product is designed to market to youth,” Richard says, adding that he hasn’t seen any opposition to the proposed ordinance.
According to Jamerson, “We don’t sell liquids containing nicotine in ‘kid flavors,’ like bubblegum or cotton candy” Smart Smoke does, however, have an entire wall full of 40 different other flavors, including: classic, tobacco, menthol, strawberry, banana, spearmint, raspberry, apple, cream, melon, mango and energy drink. Go to their website, and you’ll find directions for combining liquids into even more flavors. Add two drops of root beer flavor into the vanilla flavor, and you’ve got “root beer float.” Two drops of orange into the cream flavor gets you “creamsicle.”
Josh Arleth had tried six or seven times to quit. Nothing worked. Not gum, not patches, certainly not cold turkey. Then he used e-cigarettes — and within a few weeks, didn’t feel the need for an actual cigarette.
“I get all the benefits of quitting smoking,” says Arleth, smoking a piña colada-flavored e-cigarette. He started smoking five years ago, at the age of 16, and says he’s saved about $4,300 since he switched to e-cigarettes six months ago.
“I got taste and smell back, I stopped coughing up all the crap from my lungs, I could breathe,” he says. “My clothes don’t smell like smoke and I don’t smell like smoke.”
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t so sure about the health claims. The department has long wanted to regulate e-cigarettes
as a drug delivery device — the same way it does with Nicorette gum. In 2008, the FDA started intercepting packages of e-cigarettes from China and was sued by e-cigarette manufactures.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the manufacturers’ favor. But to avoid going through a pre-approval process with the FDA, manufacturers will still have to treat e-cigarettes as a mere “recreational alternative” to cigarettes, and not an aid to quit smoking.
In September 2010, the FDA sent warning letters to five electronic cigarette manufacturers.
“A company cannot claim that its drug can treat or mitigate a disease, such as nicotine addiction, unless the drug’s safety and effectiveness have been proven,” the agency wrote in a press release. “Yet all five companies claim without FDA review of relevant evidence that the products help users quit smoking cigarettes.”
This hasn’t stopped Smart Smoke, which is encouraging doctors and insurance companies to recommend e-cigarettes to tobacco-smoking patients.
“We’re trying to push them to push our product,” Scott says. The company’s brochures also suggest that people use their wares to stop smoking. One anonymous speech bubble says, “I smoked cigarettes for 17 years, tried to quit four times and had given up in despair until I tried this.” Another says, “Every time I quit cigarettes I gained weight, until I found Smart Smoke.”
Christopher Zilar, program manager for the county’s health department, however, warns that we don’t know much about electronic cigarettes yet. They haven’t been studied as thoroughly as tobacco has.
Preliminary FDA studies, meanwhile, have detected levels of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in some electronic cigarettes.
If some medical professional — or advertisement, for that matter — says they can tell you the health impacts of e-cigarettes, Zilar says, be skeptical.
That is where you’ll find big disagreement between e-cigarette retailers and health professionals. The former believe e-cigarettes are safe. The latter say there hasn’t been nearly enough research.
But both health professionals and purveyors of the e-cigarettes would like a little more regulation in the industry.
“Some stores sell these liquids, literally they’re hand-packaged,” Commissioner Richard says. That worries him. And it should, says Ronell Routon, director of sales and marketing for Smart Smoke, which lists its ingredients publicly.
now, we’re setting the industry standard for regulation,” says Routon.
“Get rid of people mixing the liquid in the back of their building. God
knows what they’re putting in their liquid.”