E-cigarette shops opening across New York City even as local government looks to limit product use
January 10, 2014
(The New York Times Co.)
– A half-dozen people were gathered around the tasting bar at the Henley Vaporium in SoHo on a recent Friday evening. Behind the bar, two vapologists in white lab coats stood before a selection of dozens of tiny bottles, each containing liquid nicotine. The customers, all students or young professionals, leisurely inhaled on their so-called vape pens. Clouds of mist curled upward and vanished. A slightly sweet smell lingered in the air.
The vapologists — the title was actually stitched on the breast of each lab coat — were there to help guide them through the array of gadgetry and e-liquid flavors, which come in nearly 100 varieties, like butterscotch, blueberry and crème brûlée. The most popular at the Henley is Swagger, a blend of vanilla, caramel and tobacco flavors.
After an hour sampling the “juices,” Chris Gsell, 39, a director of product development at a nearby ad agency, settled on creamy banana. “It’s delicious,” he said between pulls from his vape pen.
When you draw on an electronic cigarette (or push a button on the fancier versions), a sensor activates a battery that causes a heating element to vaporize the nicotine solution in a cartridge, emitting a fine mist. The disposable e-cigarettes available at bodegas can cost as little as $10; the Henley offers vape pens that cost up to $250, but most are far less expensive. (The liquid nicotine is $12 per 12 milliliter vial and lasts about as long as four packs of cigarettes.) Mr. Gsell uses a refillable, $53 e-cigarette, whose battery packs a lot more punch than the disposable ones. An e-cigarette advocate was standing near the door at the Henley, urging customers to contact the New York City Council to oppose a bill limiting the use of e-cigs that was to be voted on the next week. The response was enthusiastic, but in the end it would not matter. Six days later, the proposed ban on using e-cigarettes wherever smoking is now prohibited became the law.
The Henley Vaporium is one of six e-cigarette shops to open in the past six months in New York City — three in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and one in Queens. More are on the way this year. These stores serve the growing number of “vapers” (the preferred term) providing supplies, guidance and something of a scene. Despite e-cigarette bans in various cities and towns across the United States, the hope in the growing industry is that vaping will eventually oust smoking, just as the DVD displaced videocassettes.
Talia Eisenberg, a Henley co-founder, has been betting on this ever since she had an epiphany about three years ago. She had emerged from a dark period in her life, kicking an addiction to pills — OxyContin and Vicodin. Tobacco, however, she could not shake. She tried quitting cold turkey, using nicotine gum and patches, even the prescription drug Chantix. Then, after a few weeks with e-cigarettes, she seemed to be through with smoking for good. But she thought the product could be improved. “This was the perfect cause,” Ms. Eisenberg, 27, said recently, sitting at a long table that looked out on a patio behind the shop, “the answer to one of the biggest killers in history.”
With her co-founder, Peter Denholtz, 53, a friend who also used e-cigarettes to end his three-decade habit, she went to Shenzhen, China, to work with an engineer to design the first e-cigarette for their brand, Henley. The name, according to Ms. Eisenberg, has no significance other than that it sounded “cool” and “British.” The new design, she said, improved the chip and battery and gave it a smoother, cigarette-like draw, more vapor and some style. She then set out to convert smokers and educate the public about what she saw as a less harmful alternative, which was no easy task at the time. “People thought they were weird and not cool,” she said.
They continued to develop the brand, producing more sophisticated devices, selling online and at hotels and convenience stores. But with the tobacco industry moving into the market with its vast resources, they had to pivot, and so in October opened their first retail space, for which they coined the term “vaporium.” This was around the time that Mr. Gsell made the switch to e-cigarettes and started coming by.
“Instead of ordering something blindly online, I can come here and say, ‘I want an earthy flavor, what do you got?’ ” he said, adding that he had no plans to give up e-cigarettes, at least until a definitive study advised him to.
Though a number of studies have been conducted in recent years, without long-term research, the jury is still out on the question of how harmful vaping may be. The Food and Drug Administration is currently putting together regulations that should be issued this year. A researcher from Weill Cornell Medical College recently left a stack of fliers at the Henley to recruit users for a lung study.
For those who use e-cigarettes, it seems obvious that nicotine-infused vapor is nowhere near as toxic as smoke from burned tobacco, with all the tar, chemicals and carcinogens.
“That’s what harm reduction is about,” Ms. Eisenberg said.
Ms. Eisenberg usually uses the rough equivalent of an ultralight cigarette, with 6 milligrams of nicotine per vial. Considering that the vial lasts about as long as four packs of cigarettes, that breaks down to a fraction of the nicotine content of traditional cigarettes.
While views differ on how well vaping simulates the experience of smoking, the issue of the moment is how to classify and regulate the technology.
“The word ‘cigarette’ is what’s confusing everybody,” Mr. Denholtz said. Norman Siegel, the longtime civil liberties lawyer, agreed. The day after the vote in favor of the ban, he said his law firm was strongly considering challenging it in court.
“They clearly are equating cigarettes with e-cigarettes,” he said. “What it is still is an open question, but it’s clearly not a cigarette, and yet that was the rationale.”
Vape shops appear to be exempt from the ban, so it could end up being good for business. Come April 29, when the e-cigarette ban takes effect, the Henley is going to be one of the few congenial spots — with free Wi-Fi, a cafe, a shabby chic sofa and recycled-rubber chairs — where indoor public vaping is legal.Brooklyn Vaper in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which recently doubled its space, also stands to benefit.
Though smaller than the Henley, the place has a similar cozy vibe, with sofas and an affectionate dachshund named Bacon. The owner, Ilona Orshansky, moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco to start the business.
“I saw a huge need here in New York,” she said recently.
Ms. Orshanksy, 29, had smoked since she was 12, but converted to e-cigarettes a year ago. While she was visiting New York last spring, she lost her vape pen and could not find a specialty shop in the city, so she decided to open one herself, using her savings and some money from her family. Since the lounge opened in August, she said, sales each month have increased by about $1,000.
A guy with horn-rimmed glasses came in, and Ms. Orshansky, somewhere between a sommelier and a clerk at an ice-cream parlor, asked about his flavor preferences. “Something not too heavy,” he said. She brought out a few vials for him to sample, and he picked one with a mild tobacco flavor.
Sitting on a couch with his own purchase in hand, Chris Conlin, 30, a web developer who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said he replaced his 15-year, pack-a-day habit with e-cigarettes last January. He is happy to have quit smoking, but he is not thrilled with vaping. “It looks really silly,” he said.
As for the vaping ban, he added, it seemed to be at cross-purposes with the city’s effort to help smokers like him quit. Initially, he reached out to the New York State Smokers’ Quitline, but its cessation methods did not work for him. In the end, e-cigarettes did help him achieve the program’s goal, sort of, even though their use is a method it explicitly discourages.
“E-cigarettes are absolutely not cigarettes,” he said, acknowledging that he wished they were. “They’re just giving me enough nicotine to not go crazy.”
At the Henley Vaporium in SoHo, guests puff on or “vape” e-cigarettes. KATIE ORLINSKY FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Michael Carbone, top center, is employed at the Henley Vaporium as a “vapologist,” helping customers select varieties of liquid nicotine. Above, Talia Eisenberg is a founder of the Henley. KATIE ORLINSKY FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
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