Do e-cigarettes hook us or help us?

Vaping. Photo via by planetc1/ Flickr/Creative Commons
Vaping. Photo via by planetc1/ Flickr/Creative Commons

This week I inhaled Unicorn Blood for the first time. That’s not some Satanic drug ritual or a Harry Potter-themed beverage — it’s one flavor of nicotine liquid, or “e-juice” among the hundreds you can buy for an e-cigarette. What’s it taste like? Skittles and black tea. I also tried Nightwatch (coffee and doughnuts), Nice Melons, Harvest Berries, and Papa’s Cough Medicine.

If that sounds fun, you can see why public health experts who’ve battled tobacco companies for decades are worried. More on that later.

E-cigarettes have surged in popularity, going from a party trick for ravers and techies to a booming industry that’s expected to reap $1 billion in 2013 and even start sneaking some market share away from tobacco companies. A pair of reports out this month has policymakers debating the devices: One troubling study found that their use among high school students doubled since 2011; on the other hand, research published in the journal Lancet found that e-cigarettes may be as effective in helping quit tobacco as the patch. The state of California already bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but city and state lawmakers are considering tighter restrictions, including moratoriums on new shops that sell e-cigarettes.[soundcloud id=’111284600′]

To understand this booming industry, I stopped by the Vapor Spot on Westwood Blvd. It’s a long showroom filled with display cases and mini-bar stations with retro bar stools. Five or six staff members man the bars, taking puffs of e-cigs while they field questions and make sales on iPads. Think the VIP Lounge for Virgin Airlines crossed with an apothecary. There are rows of tiny bottles and cartridges lining the walls, holding various flavors and strengths.

My bartender was the store’s manager Tino. He grabbed a dozen or so flavors of e-juice. Some were nicotine-free. Others contained 6 milligrams of nicotine. He picked up a cartridge and screwed it into the end of a handheld device that looks like a big balllpoint pen. The whole process takes a few seconds so there’s a lot of mixing and matching flavors.

The Vapor Spot
The Vapor Spot

To inhale, you press a button and put the mouthpiece to your lips. Metal coils inside the device heat the liquid and turn it into vapor. It feels like sucking on a humidifier but with a tingle on the back of your throat. Depending on how hard you inhale and the variety of the vapor, the device can create a massive cloud like a water pipe.

Little is known about the contents of what you’re ingesting when you use an e-cigarette. Though they don’t contain tobacco and the FDA has done a few studies, each brand varies wildly because they’re not regulated the way cigarettes, or even Nicotine gum is regulated. After trying about a dozen flavors I had an unpleasant tickle in my throat.

If e-cigarette vendors and vapor shops are trying to create an experience around buying these products — mission accomplished. Vaping is probably as close to smoking as you’re going to get without lighting up the traditional way. And they’ve managed to make shopping for e-cigarettes feel both like buying a new phone and going to a bar. In fact, one of the high-end devices can cost you as much as a new phone ($100 and up).

People on both sides of the public health debate agree vaping is intended to be fun. The question for policymakers is: Will this fun lure a whole generation of new nicotine users to get hooked on a dangerous product we know very little about? Or will it be so fun that smokers who would otherwise be at high-risk of cancer abandon tobacco for a less harmful alternative? Don’t expect the answer anytime soon.