Tania Hooper pushed a button on her electronic cigarette, drew in a deep breath,
and exhaled a puffy white cloud that mimics smoke from a traditional tobacco
As she tested a new model at Pioneer Vapes in Virginia Beach, the cloudy vapor smelled of hazelnut from a Frangelico-like sweetener in the potion that filled the tube.
Hooper, who once smoked two packs a day, said she made the switch to electronic cigarettes five months ago. Now she lights up at the restaurant where she works, and her boss pays no attention. But no one was happier than her 9-year-old daughter, Leigh.
"It smells blech," Leigh said, holding her nose as she recalled the days when her mother smoked the real things.
Nicotine-laced electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have become a booming industry, both online and in retail stores. Sales this year have surpassed $1 billion, more than doubling sales for all of last year, and are expected to approach $2 billion by year's end.
Bonnie Herzog, an industry analyst with Wells Fargo Securities, said sales of e-cigs could outpace the $80 billion in annual traditional tobacco sales in a decade.
Sales will likely skyrocket now that Richmond-based Altria has entered the mix. The nation's largest cigarette producer this summer began test-marketing a product it calls MarkTen in Indiana. The second-largest tobacco company, Reynolds American, launched its brand, Vuse, and the third-largest company, Lorillard, bought out Blue Cigs last year.
E-cigarettes are widely available at 7-Elevens and drugstores, gas stations and traditional tobacconists, but Hampton Roads now has two stand-alone stores and three mall kiosks dedicated solely to selling the devices and educating consumers about the product.
The Vapor Boutique at 327 W. Bute St. in Norfolk's Freemason neighborhood just celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Mac Salmon, who runs the store, said he saw a market for a high- quality electronic cigarette that couldn't be found in convenience stores.
"The perception is, they are all the same, but we specialize in high-end products," said Salmon, operations director for The Vapor Boutique's parent company, SmokeAnywhere USA. The company also runs the three mall stores at Greenbrier, Lynnhaven and Chesapeake Square, and plans to open a lounge in Newport News.
"The ones sold in 7-Eleven are underpowered and disposable, and they probably turned many people off," said Salmon, a two-pack-a- day smoker until he switched to e-cigs four years ago.
Pioneer Vapes, next to a dry cleaner's store in a small strip mall on Pleasure House Road just off Independence Boulevard in Virginia Beach, opened this month.
Owner John Espinosa was waiting on a steady stream of customers one afternoon last week. His walls are lined with vaping decor, including an Uncle Sam poster that says, "I Want you ... to Vape."
He relies on word of mouth and Facebook to attract customers and, like Salmon, said business is booming.
"It gives the illusion of smoking," he said as he exhaled a plume of vapor. "It's not a way to quit smoking. It's an alternative to smoking."
Sitting at the counter, new customer Rob Schneider of Virginia Beach said he was on his third day without a traditional cigarette.
"I've tried all different things. They didn't do anything for me. With this, you're not getting all the chemicals," he said.
Electronic cigarettes are not without controversy, however.
Anti-tobacco groups are lobbying hard across the country to get states to pass laws over concerns that e-cigarettes are unregulated, that minors can easily get them on the Internet, and that they contain harmful chemicals.
Pro-electronic-cigarette groups and manufacturers dispute that the chemicals are harmful - other than the addictive nicotine - saying they contain mostly water and flavoring, as opposed to the thousand-plus chemicals and tar found in tobacco cigarettes.
A number of cities and counties, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Savannah, Ga., have passed laws prohibiting the use of electronic cigarettes in many public places.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is set to release its first set of regulations this fall while it continues to study the health effects of e-cigarettes.
An agency spokeswoman said that will be followed by a public- comment period before they are enacted. (The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the FDA is considering a ban on Internet sales because of concerns about minors buying them.)
"Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products," the spokeswoman, Stephanie Yao, said in a statement.
Some states have passed laws prohibiting sales to minors. The Virginia General Assembly hasn't addressed the issue, but Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion in 2010 that said electronic cigarettes do not violate the smoking ban in restaurants because they do not produce "smoke" or meet the definition of "smoking" as defined in the law.
Still, some restaurants and bars don't allow them indoors.
But that's not the case where Hooper works.
Her bosses at Kapamilya Oriental Restaurant in the Lynnhaven area of Virginia Beach don't mind when she "fires."
"I feel so much healthier," she said, sitting on a couch at Pioneer Vapes.
"Whoa, baby!" she said as she inhaled another hit of the Frangelico-flavored concoction. "It's so yummy."
Tim McGlone, 757-446-2343, email@example.com
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