Vaping is everywhere. A quick online search finds at least 20 vape shops in Long Beach alone, with several others located in the nearby cities of Lakewood and Bellflower. Today, it is rare to drive by a strip mall that doesn’t feature a store selling vaporizers, e-cigarettes, vape fluids and other accessories for what has become a growing industry over the past decade.

Especially in California, the vaping industry has grown and diversified since vaporizers and e-cigarettes first became popular in the late 2000s. There are companies offering mentorship for prospective vape shop owners, vape fluid manufacturers and even an insurance provider that specializes in business insurance for vendors of vaping products. JUUL, an e-cigarette company headquartered in San Francisco, reported $1.3 billion in revenues in 2018 and is expecting to triple revenues this year.

Cesar Chavez MatchFree
The vaping industry has caught plenty of heat for marketing its products to teenagers and young adults, but Carlos C., owner of the Match Free vape shop in East Long Beach, said his clients are usually adult smokers like himself. “I used to be a smoker myself and this is one of the products that actually helped me quit smoking,” C. said. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

“I think California, as well as New York, are the trend-setting areas for the rest of the country,” Bill Blowitz, owner of Long Beach vape shop Smokeless Success, told the Business Journal. Blowitz said he entered the business hoping to help cigarette smokers who have struggled to give up their unhealthy habit, even with the help of traditional alternatives like nicotine gum or patches.

“Most people who smoke cigarettes, they don’t realize how much they love it,” Blowitz explained. “If it was just a nicotine addiction, they would’ve gotten the gum or the patch and been done with it decades ago.” Vaporizers and e-cigarettes offer smokers an experience that is similar to traditional cigarettes, without the same adverse health effects and pungent smell of burning tobacco, manufacturers claim.

Still, the health effects of vaping are largely underexplored, and experts warn that chemicals used to flavor vape fluids as well as the nicotine consumed through e-cigarettes may have similar negative effects on the body as traditional cigarettes.

“We know that smoking tobacco cigarettes is associated with about half a million deaths a year in the United States. It’s really [about] the worst thing you can do for your body,” Dr. Linda Richter, director of policy and research analysis with the Center on Addiction, told the Business Journal. “All that said, the fact that e-cigarettes are somewhat safer than cigarettes is not really a glowing recommendation for their safety.”

Richter noted that the technology is too young to analyze the long-term effects vape products may have on the human body. But preliminary research on nicotine as well as flavoring chemicals used in vape fluids has shown an impact on lung function as well as the cardio-vascular and reproductive systems, Richter explained. These findings have been supported by animal studies on vaping products, she added.

Still, Richter noted, there are rare cases where vaping can produce positive health effects. “If it completely replaces cigarette smoking, sure, that’s a benefit. More and more research is coming out, though, that shows that the number of people for whom that’s true is really quite small,” she said. “A lot of people take up vaping to quit cigarettes, but there’s so much nicotine in these vaping products that it just perpetuates the addiction.”

Another concern that has dominated the public debate around vaping is the industry’s appeal to teenagers and young adults. A study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that approximately 45.5% of 15 to 17 year-olds and 29.1% of 13 to 14 year-olds were familiar with the JUUL brand of e-cigarettes, and 7.6% of 15 to 17 year-olds have reported having used a JUUL e-cigarette in the past.

Richter argued that this brand awareness among young people is no coincidence, but rather a result of targeted social media campaigns by the industry’s largest player. “The way these products had been marketed was really targeted to young people,” Richter said. “And that’s because decades of research show that the younger you get someone hooked on product, whether it’s an addictive product like nicotine or any product, you are likelier to have a lifetime customer.”

Richter noted that in addition to marketing efforts targeting young people, some of the names and packaging used for different flavors of vape fluid are designed to appeal to a younger demographic, rather than adults hoping to quit cigarettes. “There’s also a lot of research showing that for adults who want to stop smoking and want an alternative, the fact that there isn’t a flavor called Bubbalicious or Cotton Candy is not going to dissuade them from switching,” she added.

Cesar C., owner of the Match Free vape shop in East Long Beach, said efforts to ban flavors, such as the recently discarded California Senate Bill 38, would create a black market because adult smokers prefer flavored vape fluids. “When you go out into the street and you smell somebody smoking cigarettes, you hate it,” he explained. “Because it cost you so much to quit, you don’t want it to get back into your system. That’s why people pick up different flavors, because they smell different – they don’t smell like cigarettes.”

A former smoker himself, C. said vaping has helped him ditch his long-term cigarette habit. “As a smoker, I believe that it’s a better choice,” C. said. He expressed frustration with the negative light that has been cast on the industry in recent years. “It seems like everybody forgot that people smoked and cigarettes kill you,” C. said.

Norm Bour, founder of consultant company Vape Mentors, said the vaping industry mostly has itself to blame for the negative shift in public perception. “The industry has been its own worst enemy, because it has pandered to – not children in the conventional sense – but certainly the young people,” Bour said. “But they’re getting their act together.” Still, he noted, the process is slow and some companies aren’t willing to change a winning strategy. “They don’t disagree with the regulations, they just don’t care. Their feeling is: I’m going to get away with whatever I can get away with, until somebody actually stops me,” he said.

Bour, Blowitz and C. all said they expect further market consolidation in the upcoming years, especially as increasing regulations make it more challenging for small companies in the industry to survive. But, Bour said, “I think that vaping is here to stay, that there will continue to be vape shops out there. My hope is that, over time, they will continue to be more professionally run and they will be more adherent to the regulation, doing things the way that they should be doing them.”

Despite outcry from the industry, Richter said federal regulations will be necessary to prevent vaping from becoming a public health burden, including strict age limits and restrictions on advertising, similar to those imposed on the tobacco industry since the 1970s. “None of this is in the interest of the vaping companies. Of course they want to be as appealing as possible, but that’s where regulations need to come in,” she noted. “The tobacco industry would continue to do the same with cigarettes if they could, but the government has recognized that that’s not safe and we have to rein it in. And they’re doing just fine, financially.”