Electronic cigarettes heat up in Santa Cruz County
Wen Wei is not a smoker. However, he did grow up in a Santa Cruz household full of cigarette smokers and watched helplessly as family members developed a litany of heart disease and lung problems.
So when electronic cigarettes emerged in 2002, the Harbor High graduate took notice. At the time, however, available e-cigarettes were considered highly unregulated gimmicks mostly advertised on porn sites and imported from China.
“We knew it was an interesting product that could change the way people perceive cigarettes and even have a positive health impact, but it was too early—the technology wasn’t mature enough,” says the 34 year old. “There weren’t that many producers, there was no regulation or accountability and we couldn’t control the sources of the chemicals that went into it.”
Originally considered smoking cessation devices, the FDA classified and regulated e-cigarettes as medical devices, but in 2010 this definition was overruled and they were regulated as tobacco products. As a result, e-cigarettes no longer required FDA approval, which launched a period of rapid development and enormous growth for the industry.
It was the moment Wei had been waiting for. In 2010, he and his partners began work on an e-cigarette product with design and function standards high enough to stand out in the newly competitive U.S. market. After “two to three years of development” and selecting only the “best manufacturers” to partner with, Beyond Vape was born. In May 2013, they opened their first retail store in Los Angeles.
“L.A. is the mecca of e-cigarettes,” Wei says. “We didn’t want to get into the online market because there’s just too much crap out there. When you buy online you take a huge risk. The retail revolution really legitimized the product. It gives people the opportunity to taste and try the product.”
Today, Beyond Vape boasts two stores in L.A., two stores in New York, and one in Capitola—which, according to Wei, has one of the densest smoking populations of any city in California. The American Lung Association recently issued the town a “C” grade in their 2014 State of Tobacco Control report.
“We lost money for two months because we gave away free samples,” Wei says. “Our main goal is to get people to actually like the experience so they can stick to it. We don’t want people to try it once and then go back to cigarettes.”
E-cigarettes generally use a heating element known as an atomizer that vaporizes a liquid solution called “juice.” Some solutions contain a mixture of nicotine and flavorings, while others release a flavored vapor without nicotine.
While “vaping” has been found to be conclusively safer than traditional cigarettes, many detractors are concerned that they are marketed heavily toward teenagers and that the secondhand aerosol emitted by the products may have deleterious effects on the public.
In fact, on Tuesday, March 25, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to treat e-cigarettes like combustible cigarettes, joining 40 other California cities in regulating the emerging technology like traditional tobacco. Councilmember Pamela Comstock cited the product’s unknown health impact, perceived marketing to children and potential to create a new generation of smokers as the primary reasons to update the ordinance to include e-cigarettes.
Lynn Lauridsen agrees with the decision. A member of the Santa Cruz Tobacco Education Coalition, Lauridsen believes the current “glamorous” marketing of e-cigarettes and the wide assortment of available flavors such as chocolate, cotton candy and piña colada, have a direct impact on luring youth into potential nicotine addiction.
“They are rapidly gaining popularity with young people,” Lauridsen says. “And the marketing is sending a lot of mixed messages. They look like cigarettes and deliver nicotine like cigarettes, but Beyond Vape’s radio ads make them sound like a smoking cessation tool. There’s no scientific proof that they help people quit smoking. The bottom line is we don’t want to see smoking re-normalized.”
Lauridsen believes e-cigarettes should fall under the same strong tobacco retail licensing policy as cigarettes—in other words, remain behind locked glass cases in all stores. In addition, she would like to see a ban on all flavored e-cigarettes.
Although the jury remains out on the long-term health risks of e-cigarettes, consumers have largely accepted the smokeless alternative as the lesser of two evils. American sales hit the $1 billion mark by the end of 2013, and are projected to reach $10 billion within five years.
Wei has no problem being lumped in with traditional cigarettes for now. He believes it is the e-cigarette industry’s responsibility—not the government’s—to educate the public about the differences between vaping and smoking.
“Anyone can see that our products and cigarettes are entirely different,” Wei says. “If they’re going to regulate us in the same way, fine. We welcome any kind of regulation because it forces manufacturers to produce a better product and ultimately evolves the industry.”