Cloud blowers, flavor connoisseurs, smokeless e-cig puffers, surreptitious stoners, cancer patients trying to quit cigarettes -- Houston's e-cigarette and vape consumers as are diverse as the products created in the local DIY market. It's a market that's been allowed to frankenstein and modify new contraptions for vaporizing countless blends of liquid nicotine and flavored juices to the point that no two sonic screwdrivers meeting up at a bar have to be alike.
But with the FDA proposing to crack down, mom and pop vendors are holding their breath to see if regulation will stomp out innovation.
The FDA proposes permitting blends, limiting vending machine sales and free samples, marketing with health warnings and imposing a strict age limit. Ads claiming that e-cigs and vapes are healthier than regular cigarettes will require the backing of direct scientific evidence.
Local vape store owners says although e-cigs and vapes haven't been thoroughly studied, the type of customers who walk through their doors are proof that the products help people quit smoking. Anyone who tries to regulate vaping like smoking hasn't learned enough about the new trend, says Justin Lybyer, a self-identified vapehead who bounces around shops customizing vaporizers and teaching walk-ins about what goes into the juice.
"Nowadays if you walk in somewhere and you're a smoker, everyone gives you the stink-eye. it's just so frowned upon now," Lybyer says. "[Vaping] is one step closer for us to be the last generation of people that smokes."
Although he worries new regulations could discourage people looking for cigarette alternatives, but concedes there are parts of the industry that need more oversight.
For one thing, an unbridled market has allowed the proliferation of clones, the fake-Gucci knockoff equivalent of luxury vaporizers. With the growing popularity of high-end designs for mods (battery packs) and atomizers (the vapor-creating apparatus attached), mass producers in China have fed cheap mimics into the local scene. Those products look just about right, but they sometimes lack the safety vents that keep vapes from overheating: those are the ones reported to have exploded in people's hands.
There's also the fear that the unintended consequences of FDA regulations would help big tobacco companies corner the craft juice blending market. The big companies have capital to certify their flavors and advertise mainstream e-cigarettes like Blu and NJOY, which pretty much taste like shit.
Thomas McCool, who opened New Element Fine Vapors on Richmond three months ago, says he's a fan of regulations as long as they're fair. Some mom and pop shops will mix blends with up to 36 milligrams of nicotine, which is a lot even for serious smokers, and he just doesn't see the point in that. A regular pack of cigarettes will average eight to 20 milligrams of nicotine -- New Element Fine Vapors and the Vapor Lair only sell up to 18 milligrams per bottle of juice.
Vapers who know what they're doing will go to the right people for the right products, but if big tobacco takes over the industry, McCool says, that could destroy small juice blenders and local vaporizer builders.
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"Right now DIY is a mom and pop thing," he says. "We let people modify their devices, their formulas. For [Big Tobacco], I feel like it would just be more economical. I would foresee them producing a starter, intermediate and an advanced product, and that would be that."
McCool says if FDA regulations open the door for a sin tax, he might have to set prices on his products that bring them closer to what cigarettes cost now, and that could deter smokers from making the transition. His store may not stay afloat.
The Vape Summit, the nation's largest e-cig and vaporizer trade show, is coming to Houston on November 7. Local vendors will show off their latest innovations and flavors, and speakers are expected to educate the masses on what the FDA regulations could really mean for consumers and businesses.
"Regulating nicotine, making sure that people are using approved ingredients and stuff, I think it's important," McCool says. "But then again it needs to be fair. This is a new market and we don't want it taken over by Big Tobacco."