Since the modern day e-cigarette made its way to the United States about ten years ago, vape stores have been popping up all across South Florida to keep up with the demand. Doctors have been warning users about its side effects, but customers often praise the device for helping them quit traditional cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration has only started to implement regulations, and that's worrying health professionals.
The truth is, as these products become more and more popular, there's still a lot we don't know about them. Competitions like the Vape Capitol Cloud Championship challenge users to get creative with their vaping techniques and style. The vaping devices used in these competitions don't always contain nicotine, but certainly help boost the device's popularity in pop culture. Doctors believe the customizable colors and flavors have also helped create a more socially accepted image.
"I feel like I see a whole bunch of people vaping on the streets," Brett Tenney told our cameras. Tenney had been smoking traditional cigarettes since he was 18 years old. Seven years later, he's picking up an e-cigarette to help him quit.
"That's one of the issues and problems," explained Dr. Joseph Giaimo, a local pulmonologist, "because now it's getting into younger and younger populations."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3 million middle and high school kids are using e-cigarettes. It's now the most popular way for teens to inhale nicotine; and it's troubling considering the CDC estimates 80% of adult smokers started before the age of 18 years old.
On the other hand, for those trying to quit traditional cigarettes, almost everyone WPBF spoke to agrees: these devices have helped them.
"I went from smoking a pack and a half a day to smoking four, maybe five, cigarettes a day, max," Thomas Watson said. Watson picked up his first cigarette at 14 years old and has been smoking for six years. He says his friends are also making the swtitch. "They're happier, they're less stressed, they feel healthier on a daily basis, not just overall but they feel healthier. They can breathe better."
"I quit smoking cigarettes about a week after getting it," Winter Duerschmidt added. At twenty years old, he'd been a smoker for five years before buying a used e-cigarette to help him quit.
This is how the process works:
After switching to the e-cigarette, customers are able to choose a certain nicotine percentage each time they buy the liquid found in the device, also referred to as "juice." Ideally, customers can choose a lower dose each time they buy the juice until the nicotine content drops to zero.
Lina Mochet made that transition recently and added, "I didn't think there was going to be something that would be an easy transition from smoking and I think vaping is so much easier than I thought it was going to be."
However, now nicotine may not be the only problem. When you buy e-cigarette juice, what are you really buying?
"There's no regulation on that end of things," explained Paul Strand, who runs Shop Vapes, Inc. Strand's clientele is made up of the older generation, trying to cut back on their nicotine addiction by switching tow hat has been called the 'safer alternative.' "I don't mind losing a customer if someone's going to be in a better position as a result of it," he added.
In fact, Strand has had a strict "no minors" policy ever since he opened his brick and mortar store six years ago, even when no federal age regulations had been put in place.
"I felt dirty," Strand remembered about the first few weeks he had opened up his store. "I felt like we were doing something wrong, and about 3 (or) 4 weeks later, a good portion of my first customers started coming in and actually walking up and hugging me and saying thank you."
Strand manufactures his own products, and all his ingredients are from the US. He says he uses the highest grade vegetable glycerine and propylene glycol; North Carolina-grown tobacco, US extracted nicotine, and flavoring approved by the FDA. He says he adds no chemical enhancers or alcohol. However, depending on the product you buy, that's not always the case.
"Someone using products from overseas, Chinese based propylene glycol, they tend to have very high heavy metals and things like that that I wouldn't vape personally myself," Strand explained.
To add to the confusion, Strand says companies boasting "Produced in the USA" could be importing their ingredients from overseas and simply mixing their product in the states. For a truly American grown product, look for levels that boast "Produced and Sourced in the USA."
These are some of the reasons why the FDA is stepping in with a variety of regulations. In August of 2016, the FDA started to crack down on "ENDS", or Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems.
"The FDA has started regulation process and it will go on for the next couple years," Strand added. "First step was the interface with the customer. Second step is our labels and listing all our warnings on them. The next step is basically sending all the ingredients in your products and then financial registration. In other words, they take your product and do a full chemical analysis and make sure your product has exactly what it says containing in it that it says it contains."
Strand says he did the math and the registration and FDA fees average out to about $150,000 per barcoded product.
"Under the new regulations as they are, I would not be able to manufacture my own product. I would not be able to afford the costs involved in doing so," said Strand. So where would the local shops buy their merchandise? Strand had an answer for that, too, saying, "To buy from a big company, more than likely a big tobacco. It would probably come from R. J. Reynolds or someone like that."
The new regulations and restrictions will continue to roll out for the next few years, shaping the vaping industry as we know it.
As far as the side effects of e-cigarettes, Dr. Giaimo says it still may be a few years until we know for sure.
"We really don't know what's going to happen with the vaping and the cigarettes," said Dr. Giaimo. "We're starting to find out that it's certainly not as toxic as traditional cigarettes because when you smoke a traditional cigarette there are a number of different products of combustion that you inhale -- so vaping is a little purer form of that but it's still inhaling a fume and toxin into your lungs so it's not healthy for you at all, and it causes a significant reaction in the lungs themselves."