PORTLAND, Maine — Smoking tobacco products at restaurants and many other public places in Maine has been banned for years. But vaping?
A tobacco-free smoking alternative linked to the emergence of electronic cigarettes has now ignited a small but growing group of new businesses in Maine.
The active ingredient in the e-cigarette or vape industry is flavored nicotine juice purveyed in tiny vials.
Hand-held devices called vaporizers are heated with a lithium-ion battery to create the sensation of smoking without tobacco.
Now e-liquid aged in oak barrels can be sampled like fine wine from a tasting menu in the Old Port.
The broad spectrum of flavors, from mojito inspired to coffee to the essence of baked goods, enables a new breed of entrepreneurs to set up shop. Like Baskin-Robbins’ umpteen flavors, there is something for every taste and high-tech gadgets to boot.
Inside the Old Port Vape Shop, which opened on Market Street last week, owners Alex Russak and John Kreis demonstrate the technique.
Russak pushes a button on a cylinder that resembles a sleek flashlight. This triggers the battery, which powers a tank of liquid. In an instant, a white cloud, redolent of strawberries, fills the room.
“We are not burning any tobacco,” Kreis added, exhaling a mild vapor that barely registered as smoke. That’s because it isn’t.
No flame, no fire.
The active entrepreneur scene in Maine has just gained another business platform. A combination of technology and biochemistry, paired with the endless human appetite for new sensations, is setting the stage for a vape house market. A typical supply of e-juice can cost from $9 to $27 for 15- to 30-milliliter bottles at custom boutiques like this one.
“It’s significantly cheaper than smoking,” Russak said, adding that a pack-a-day smoker could get by on these doses for up to three weeks.
But, as with any subculture rife with upgrades, costs can rack up.
Vaporizer starter kits begin at $40 at Old Port Vape Shop, while a high-end device made of copper and brass is $200. Add a battery, charger and handmade tank to make it work, and these nicotine delivery systems can run close to $400.
From the West Coast to Oklahoma to Florida and now Maine, vape houses and lounges are attracting smokers looking to kick their habit.
“Since I’ve opened up [the store], the awareness in the community has opened pretty wide,” Shaun Cook of Vapor Gurus in Waterville said. “It does seem to be gradually increasing, but in Maine everything moves slow.”
Cook has had company since Vapor Gurus opened in early January.
White Cloud Vapor in Saco and Old Port Vape Shop in Portland are the newest businesses catering to those who vape. They offer samples for customers to try before they buy.
The Portland shop is not a cigar bar, where lingering is encouraged. “It’s a retail store,” said Kreis, who offers e-liquid sans nicotine to give consumers a sense of the 50-plus flavors he sells. In Saco, customers can sample, purchase and vape in a lounge-like atmosphere.
Greg Bickel, a network administrator from Portland is an avid vaporer who is encouraged by the emergent scene, but says there is a long way to go. He started Maine Vaping Club, a support group, to help clear the air.
The informal club holds meetups at various vape shops to compare notes on the movement. “There is a lot of mystery around it — a lot of misconceptions,” he said.
Chief among them is that vaping is akin to smoking marijuana.
“People will see me with my vaporizer at a light and give me a thumbs-up signal. They think I am doing something else,” he said. “It puts it in a bad light.”
Because vaping has not become mainstream in Maine — as it has out West and in states like Texas and the Carolinas — awareness is growing day by day, Bickel said.
When he started vaping a year ago, he could only find disposable e-cigarettes in gas stations or a vape corner in a head shop. “It was a bad experience.”
Located steps from hotels and high-end restaurants, the Old Port Vape Shop hopes to become a destination for tourists this summer. With comfy furniture, a flat-screen TV and a relaxed vibe, it’s a far cry from a grimy gas station.
“The great part of being in Portland is, with all these flavors, we are similar to restaurants and bars, cuisine and different drinks,” said Kreis, who says vaping complements such amenities.
Located near art galleries and a string of popular restaurants, this is not your cousin’s head shop. Kreis, a South Portland resident, discovered vaping through a friend who worked in the industry. At first, he was skeptical. “I thought, what the heck is that? It looks like something from ‘Men in Black’ where you put the sunglasses on and you get vaporized. Or it’s the memory erasure?” he recalled.
“I tried it and said this is pretty cool, did a lot of research on it, how it’s helping people quit smoking.”
People like Steve Negm.
The inveterate smoker from Lewiston puffed for 35 years. The three-packs-a-day smoker could not walk to his mailbox without needing to sit down for 20 minutes to recuperate. Then he discovered vaping. “It changed my life,” he said by email.
Unsatisfied with the e-liquid on the market, he started mixing his own in 2010. When friends lined up to try his e-juice, it became a time-consuming and costly endeavor. He launched DownEast Vapes, an e-commerce business last April.
Signature flavors, like moose joose, Gram’s apple pie and chocolate-covered bananas, regularly sell out.
“My business has been on a steady increase since I launched the website,” Negm said. “I gain new customers every day and maintain repeat customers.”
Just how many vape shops are in Maine is unknown. Its health claims are also untested. But practitioners who were impressed enough to launch a business are bullish on the industry.
“No carcinogens, no tar, no buildup in your lungs. It is just producing a water vapor. It appears far, far healthier than combustible tobacco,” said Kreis, who quit smoking cigarettes 20 years ago. “Over the years, I gradually was enjoying three to five cigars a week.”
According to the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association in Washington, any substance containing nicotine is not 100 percent safe.
“Electronic cigarettes do not contain tobacco; a carcinogenic ingredient and they do not produce smoke,” its website states. “Numerous studies support that an overwhelming majority of tobacco-related deaths are a result of the smoke produced and inhaled by users, not nicotine.”
Though Kreis admits the jury is still out regarding the health effect of vapors, made of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine, he is undaunted.
“I want to be a part of a movement that ends our relationship with tobacco. This is an exit off the highway that nobody saw coming,” said Kreis. “I think it’s the wave of the future.”