Steven Mapes used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. But, he hasn’t had one since he switched to vaporized nicotine about a year ago.
A retired oil field worker Mapes, 57, now owns High Voltage Vapes –a store in Kenai that sells vaporizers and electronic cigarette products. Mapes opened the small shop, 11887 Kenai Spur Highway in the Kenai Electronic building, to accommodate a market that has exploded in popularity in recent years.
He sells personal vaporizes and a large assortment of flavored juices, both with and without tobacco.
E-liquids are flavored, including tobacco, menthol, coffee, candy and fruit flavorings. He said his products contain four federal Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, approved chemicals, compared to the thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke.
“I want to help people get off tobacco,” he said. “The nicotine delivery system (through vapor) is way less harmful than tobacco. I’m passionate about it because it worked for me.”
An ordinance to amend Kenai Municipal Code to treat the regulation of e-cigarettes in the same way as the city treats tobacco cigarettes is up for public hearing at the Kenai City Council meeting Wednesday.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter sponsored the ordinance. With FDA studies currently being conducted on the health risks of e-cigarettes, Porter said she felt it was time to align regulation on the product in the same way smoking cigarettes is regulated — currently cigarettes are banned in restaurants, bowling alleys and healthcare facilities.
The ordinance also includes language that would prohibit the use of marijuana in the same way within city limits, if Ballot Measure 2 passes the August primary and November election, Porter said.
“I suggested having the ordinance that encompasses anything that is inhaled and exhaled because you don’t know what could be coming a month from now,” she said. “It’s there to take care of any problems that may rise up before it becomes an issue, including marijuana.”
Since January, 108 municipalities and three states in the U.S. include e-cigarettes as products that are prohibited from use in smoke-free environments, according to a fact sheet from the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights.
Jenny Olendorff, program coordinator for Peninsula Smokefree Partnership, said she is in favor of e-cigarettes being regulated the same as tobacco cigarettes because not enough is known about them.
“We must be cautious about these products until we know definitely their safety, both to the user and the non-user,” she said. “Studies are coming out like crazy … There is nothing conclusive to say that e-cigs help people quit nicotine altogether. If some individuals say it helped them quit tobacco that’s awesome.”
Olendorff said e-cigarettes have gained popularity among younger people because the product is marketed with sexy ads. Big tobacco companies are spending a lot of money in advertising for e-cigarettes, which do not fall under any advertising restrictions, she said.
“It’s quite the phenomenon,” she said. “The candy flavors specifically target a younger audience. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.”
As a result, sales of e-cigarettes in the U.S. have doubled since 2011 to $1.7 billion in 2013, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.“Although youth smoking rates have decreased, e-cigarette use has risen nationwide and doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012,” according to the report.
“Their production is unregulated and varies widely” according to a letter from Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Ward Hurlburt M.D. “Recent research and consumer experience reflect questionable product quality and safety. With only limited research to date, the presence of toxins and cancer-causing agents as well as the health effects of their use are not yet fully known.”
Mapes said he follows Alaska smoking law. Nobody younger than 19 is allowed in his store. During his two months in business, he said his customers have ranged in age from 21 to 62.
High Voltage Vapes carries nearly 60 flavored juices from distributors like Five Pawns out of California and others including Northern Lights Vapor Company from Alaska, Dallas, Texas-based companies Suicide Bunny and Mad Alchemist, Vapor Trails Northwest in Oregon and Florida-based Diamond Vapor. Mapes sells flavors like Bananas Foster with ice cream and rum, or The Dew that tastes like the lemon-lime soda. He said a Five Pawns brand bottle, can be offered in nicotine doses ranging from 0 to 24 milligrams and cost about $27.
“I choose the best liquids from companies with integrity who stand out and sell a lot of juice,” he said. “Some people just want to vape to blow a big cloud.”
Mapes said he doesn’t think e-cigarettes and vaporizing should be regulated similarly because the two are not comparable. He said misplaced fears from “uninformed folks” have labeled the products as a problem when they could be part of the solution in the fight against smoking.
Mapes said his e-cigarettes contain five compounds: water, Propylene Glycol, Vegetable Glycerin, nicotine and food-grade flavoring.
“If you eat potato chips, breathe air in a hospital and use an asthma inhaler you have already ingested everything in an e-cigarette,” he said.
Mapes said he has been gathering information on his products and has seen the results in his personal life and from other friends and customers who have given up tobacco and feel healthier as a result.
More than 50 scientists asked the World Health Organization to reconsider its intention to classify e-cigarettes the same as regular cigarettes, according to a Nicotine Science and Policy article. The letter warned the organization that it “risk(ed) missing an opportunity to drastically reduce smoke and the illness and death associated with it.”
Patricia Patterson, owner of Lucky Raven Tobacco in Soldotna, said she firmly believes each town has a right self-govern and the impact from the ordinance would be minimal to e-cigarette users. However, she said, vapor cannot compare to tobacco smoke.
“To automatically assume vapor is smoke is ignorant,” she said. “The toxins are equal to a candle. It would be like regulating fish like we regulate apples.”
Patterson said she wondered how the city would enforce the ordinance if it passed.
“How much money would be planned on enforcing it? How can they prove someone used an e-cigarette (in a restaurant) if there is no smoke or smell?” she said. Patterson said she did not anticipate e-cigarettes becoming as popular as they did, since she started carrying them in her store in 2005. She said many people in the community use vapor, partially because it is more affordable than tobacco cigarettes.
“Who knows what the future holds,” she said. “Nicotine products to help quit could change the market. Tobacco companies are already in the market and FDA protocol rules will happen faster. … I think people have come to judgment too soon and their prejudice has cast unnecessary fears.”
Olendorff said because e-cigarettes look like traditional cigarettes and emit the aerosol, they have the potential to negatively impact social norms and make smokefree workplace policies harder to enforce. She said FDA authority could potentially change nationwide e-cigarette regulations. An FDA board is holding public comment on the topic until Aug. 8.
“In some states and communities, the public is being protected from potential health harms through local ordinances and regulations prohibiting e-cigarette use in indoor environments,” she said. “The health impacts to the users are not yet known. The jury is still out.”
A public hearing on the e-cigarette ordinance will be held Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Kenai City Hall.
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org