For Weekly SurgeJuly 24, 2013 

Smoking in North Myrtle Beach is a tough proposition for diners, revelers and concertgoers, especially since the March 7, 2012 imposition of a smoking ban in bars and restaurants there. Prior to this, it was a toss-up whether or not a concert at House of Blues was deemed smoking or non-smoking. It could go either way, at the discretion of the performers du jour – and this had been in effect for several years. But with this municipal ordinance in place, folks who choose to smoke at House of Blues will miss parts of their event because they need to walk through the crowd and slip out an exit to the side of the music hall – an alley, per se, where they can light up with impunity – burning up their ticket investments in small doses in a spot where you’d be lucky to even hear what’s going down on the main stage.

But there is a growing phenomenon taking place right under our noses. Many have no-doubt noticed this in recent television commercials and all over the Grand Strand. People are walking around with strange cylindrical contraptions tethered to them by lanyards and others are using what at first glance appear to be cigarettes. But these devices are as far from cigarettes as bananas are from steak.

Welcome to the world of electronic cigarettes and personal vaporizers, which have been steadily gaining steam [or vapor] since their introduction to the U.S. market in 2008. A personal vaporizer, or e-cigarette, is a battery operated device that atomizes a product known as e-liquid or e-juice into a mist. E-liquid contains a base of vegetable glycerin or food grade propylene glycol, is usually flavored and contains various levels of nicotine or no nicotine at all. There is no smoke produced because there is no tobacco involved. It is important to note that these products are not intended to be marketed or recommended as smoking cessation products. Nevertheless, many users claim to have been empowered to lay down the real McCoy in favor of the vape, perhaps improving their health, and lessening the dent on their wallets.

It seems that everywhere you look, somebody is vaping. Weekly Surge talked to local “vapers” and retailers to get a feel for what’s fueling this craze. So, let’s hit the vapor trail.

Going vape

We asked House of Blues operations manager John Kelly, a vaper himself, how it came about that folks were allowed to vape in the music hall. Did someone have to set a precedent?

“Honestly, it hasn’t become an issue yet,” he says. “Until someone comes down on us and says ‘no, you can’t do that,’ we are going to allow it to happen – and I think nowadays it’s getting a lot more familiar, so it’s almost becoming the norm in certain areas.” The smoking ordinance in North Myrtle Beach was amended prior to passage to remove all mention of e-cigarettes, which is good news for vapers.

Did we mention that Kelly was a longtime smoker? At first, he thought vaping was just silly. “I was very, very skeptical,” he says. “Two guys at work in another department started vaping and I would watch them every day.” He had no intention of participating. “I was a die-hard smoker for 35 years. I would do without food first. But I always would make sure that I had money put back for cigarettes.” He was one of those – you’re-not-taking-my-cigarettes-away-from-me – smokers. A two-pack-a-day man.

One day, Kelly found himself thinking about finances. He sat down with a calculator and figured out how much he was spending on cigarettes, which was close to $4,000 per year. He knew that former HOB employee Joe Battista had opened a business called iVape in Longs. On Feb. 17, Kelly’s 55th birthday, he decided to go check it out because a friend sweetened the deal by giving him birthday money to buy his first vaporizer.

“That was it,” he says. “That was all it took. I walked out with a $40 investment. I bought a starter kit, one little bottle of fluid and a car charger.” He started vaping that day, but after dinner craved a regular cigarette. “I put one cigarette in my mouth and took it right out. It didn’t even taste the same. I haven’t had one since.”

Kelly speculates that after his initial investment, he will spend approximately $150 per year on e-liquid. “As long as the cost of fluid doesn’t go way up or Big Tobacco doesn’t screw it up.”

“Mad Max” Collins, Rock 107.1, WRXZ-FM program director and host of the Mad Max Morning Show, was also a cigarette smoker for nearly 30 years. He has been vaping full time now since October, and was introduced to it by Jason Woolley, a member of local rock band The Izm. “He had one around his neck and I was like, ‘what the hell is that.’ He told me what it was and said he noticed a difference in his voice since he was on this thing.” Since Collins talks for a living, he decided to give it a try.

But he was skeptical, too. “I think everybody was confused about e-cigs and vaping,” he says. “They are totally different. The e-cigs are the cheaper, gas station brands – and there are vaporizers. Once I learned that is when I started doing the research.” But Collins went straight to the vaporizer, and once he acquired a model with adjustable voltage and wattage, he was set. “The adjustable vaporizers are fantastic,” he says. “Once I switched to the adjustable one, I started getting a bigger draw [which some call a “throat hit”] and then I started to wean off cigarettes.”

Collins was a menthol smoker, but he found a vape flavor called Blackberry Lemonade he liked. “I have not turned back. I just found the flavor I like and I stuck with it.” But every now and then he switches flavors when he is in the mood for something different.

Kelly was also a menthol man. And he is still somewhat of a purist when it comes to vape – preferring a tobacco-flavored e-juice. “I buy a small bottle of just plain menthol flavor and I’ll put a couple of drops into my tanks whenever I refill.”

The draw

Battista, Owner of iVape [] in Longs, smoked cigarettes for seven years, but has been cigarette-free since September 2009. “I started out with something that was very similar to the Blu electronic cigarette – like a small, mini, crappy e-cig,” he says, adding that he started to find better examples on the market.

But Battista started vaping in 2009, a time when these products were just making their way into the country. “I have seen a huge change in this industry – the products and the technology behind them. I come from a day when things like the gas station disposables were some of the better things on the market.” He went live online in 2009 as iVape – running ads on the site and providing samples prior to procuring his business license in March 2010. Battista opened his Longs location on S.C. 9 in September 2011. “Our store does very well, but our Internet business is crazy,” he says, adding that he makes two trips to China per year to work on projects. “We develop electronic cigarettes in China, and technology that’s used across the industry now – as well as sell it ourselves.” A new iVape location is set to open within a month in Myrtle Beach on Grissom Parkway.

But what motivated Battista to go into this business?

“It works for me and I believe in it,” he says. A self-proclaimed computer nerd who switched from technology classes to business in college, he says that he knows about electronics and about selling.

“When I got into it – I thought, wow – this thing really does make a difference in my life. I believed in it so much that I invested in it. That’s how I got into it way back when – when nobody knew what it was. That’s kind of given us an advantage.”

Vaping is a separate activity - it is not smoking. If this is the case, are smokers and non-smokers alike coming in to the shop?

“Not so many [nonsmokers] as you might think. In most cases if someone comes in here and says they don’t smoke but are thinking about vaping, we try to talk them out of it. An addiction is an addiction.” [We have all heard stories about nicotine being harder to kick than heroin.] “We try to cater to smokers in the first place, but I am sure that there are nonsmokers out there that vape, but I really don’t understand that.”

While not a cigarette smoker, local businessman Mark Raphael enjoys fine cigars. He has recently taken up vaping for different reasons. “I vape because I look at it as more of a hobby,” he says. “I don’t need it to get off cigarettes, but I just like the vaping experience because I like nicotine.”

He cites a couple of advantages to vaping: “In clubs like Rev’s [Revolutions at Broadway at the Beach] where you are not allowed to smoke tobacco products – a lot of places will allow you to use a vaporizer. I really like the taste of some of the e-liquids, and it doesn’t tend to disturb people because they know that this isn’t secondhand smoke – and many people say they like the smell of vaped e-liquids.” He does not smoke cigars in his home, but vaping is another story. “Cigars can leave a really nasty odor, but vape is kind of like a mild incense. It smells good for a short amount of time and then it’s completely gone.”

And vaping can be a pick-me-up for Raphael. “A lot of times it’s the middle of the day and I’m a little tired. I will take two minutes worth of vaping and the nicotine in it just perks me right back up.”

Smoking a large cigar is a time commitment. “With this thing, I can turn it on – vape for five or 10 minutes and I can turn it off. I smoke very large cigars and they tend to take an hour-and-a-half to get through.”

Because he has worked in the computer industry for 20 years, it is no surprise that Raphael likes the gadgetry involved with vaping. “These APVs [advanced personal vaporizers] are basically mini-computers. They are variable voltage and variable wattage. They have a computer chip in them – and even the atomizers or cartomizers that sit at the top where you put your mouth – they are also very sophisticated,” he says. Raphael vapes on a unit that resembles a silver, space-age oboe. He admits that there was more of a learning curve with this than he originally assumed. “I thought it was going to be – grab this, grab that – throw it together – and it’s really not that at all. “Learning about it wasn’t a problem for me, and I found it to be very enjoyable.”

The vapor trail

Vaping is heating up on Seaboard Street in Myrtle Beach as well. A little more than a month ago, entrepreneur Orit Deverell opened her vape business, VaVaVape [] to much fanfare from radio ads touting the store’s arrival right next to Purple Haze Smoke Shop, which is also a part of her family’s businesses. Her vaping experience has been a journey of self-discovery, motivating her to go into business and to help others.

Deverell, who also smoked for more than two decades, came across a few vaping Web sites when doing research for Purple Haze. “I thought, that’s pretty cool – I ought to try it and see how that does for me.” She fell in love with the whole vaping idea and started to slowly put the cigarettes down – and as that happened her interest in vaping took off. “I got more and more into it, and wanted to advance more – and participate in blogs and forums and things like that. It became almost an obsession.” She has been a full-time vaper for six months.

Eventually, Deverell realized that the vaping concept could hold its own as a separate storefront and an e-commerce presence. “Because this worked so well for me, I thought it would be an awesome way to introduce vaping to the community because there were no other vape shops in the area.”

A cross-section of people are in and out of her bustling store – the smokers and the folks who love the flavors only. “A lot of customers strictly want the vape - the flavors with no nicotine, and we offer that. But I have seen two kinds of smokers: The ones who just want to quit smoking but love the nicotine – and some do it to wean off the smoking. They will start at a higher nicotine level and slowly reduce, and when they are done, they are pretty much done.” She adds that some people are so used to having something in their hand, that these people will still vape but at zero nicotine.

Danny Wells, 66, manager of operations and hospitality at the Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach was a three-pack-a-day a day man for 50 years. He went through the Nicoderm patch, wearing two at a time and smoking a pack a day during that process. “I was hypnotized and that didn’t work. As soon as I got out of the hypnotist, I tried to find the butt that I tore up at the session and tried to light that up as soon as I got out of the door,” he says.

Eventually somebody told him about e-cigarettes, so Wells grabbed a brand called Logic at a local convenience store. “It was OK – but the next thing I knew I had about $300 into them – buying batteries. I was charging five batteries a day.” But he was also smoking traditional cigarettes with the Logics.

“The cook here at Ripken [Ethan Hansen, who now works for VaVaVape] told me I was wasting my time. He told me to get something that would take the place of cigarettes.” Hansen ordered Wells a decent vape setup and things started to change. But there is more to this story.

On Oct. 10, Wells went to the doctor – something he hadn’t done since he was 12. “I got a physical and they found two masses on my lungs. They told me I needed to quit smoking and that I was getting emphysema.” This was during the Logic phase. On Nov. 1 he started vaping in earnest. After two weeks, he lit a cigarette, took one draw and threw it down. He hasn’t had a cigarette since. And he revisited the doctor in December. “My lungs were clear,” he says. “No wheezing, no coughing, no nothing.”

Mystery science theater

We keep saying that vaping is not intended as a smoking cessation device. But these stories are far too compelling to ignore.

Local retired Nurse Practitioner Kim Dula says she had no intention to stop smoking when she started vaping. “I needed to have a surgery that would help mobility in my right shoulder, and the plastic surgeon that was doing it refused to do it unless I quit smoking.” But she did quit, and has been vaping since April 2011.

When Dula first found out about vaping, she thought it was a great idea. “It made perfect sense,” she says. “After all, nicotine had been made available transdermal and in gum [and the prescription-only Nicotrol Inhaler], so why not in a vapor form to simulate smoking.” And she was a smoker for 25 years.

In 1996 Dula worked in Myrtle Beach doing Pulmonary Function Testing [PFT] in doctors’ offices. One day a new PFT machine arrived. She and the respiratory therapist (also a smoker) were learning how do use it. They decided to test each other. “My PFT at the time showed that I had early signs of emphysema. Earlier this year I had another surgery which required me to see a pulmonologist. I had to have a PFT, which I passed with flying colors.” Afterward, she mentioned to the doctor that that she had been vaping for two years. He became concerned, and wanted to proceed with a chest X-ray. “He stated that the research that he had read reported that they did the same damage to the lungs. I had already had a chest X-ray, and it was fine. My conclusions are that the research was done either too early, or on people that were also still smoking cigarettes in addition to e-cigs. But with that said, nicotine is still a drug that does harm your cardiovascular system causing your blood vessels to constrict. That means that it is still not good for you. You may breathe better if you vape, but it is still not good for your heart and circulation.”

The American Medical Association is worth citing here – this from a 2010 document entitled “REPORT OF THE COUNCIL ON SCIENCE AND PUBLIC HEALTH [CSAPH Report 6-A-10]”: Use of Electronic Cigarettes in Smoking Cessation Programs”:

“Given the limited research and pending further testing, it is generally agreed that e-cigarettes have far fewer ingredients, especially carcinogens and toxins, than conventional cigarettes (which have ~600 ingredients and contain or generate more than 40 recognized carcinogens). Although the vapor produced by e-cigarettes emulates tobacco smoke, it is odorless and does not contain tar or other tobacco by-products. It consists largely of propylene glycol which is commonly found in other consumer products, such as deodorants; moisturizing lotions; toothpastes; pharmaceutical products, including some inhalers; and fat-free dairy products. E-cigarette vendors argue that because the inhaled substance is a vapor and not derived from combustion, the vast majority of harmful products derived from smoking (and secondhand smoke) are not produced and therefore are not concerns with the use of this product. However, the lack of product testing does not permit the conclusion that they do not produce any harmful products, even if they produce fewer dangerous substances than conventional cigarettes.”

The report also brings to light a term called harm reduction, which is usually associated with addictive behavior – as a means to lessen the impact of addiction in society and in individuals. “Some public health advocates argue that as a form of harm reduction, e-cigarettes are far safer to use than conventional cigarettes for individuals who do not wish to eliminate their dependence on nicotine.”

In January 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia shot down an FDA gambit to regulate what goes into e-cigarettes. American Medical News [AMA] staff writer Alicia Gallegos summed this up: “An appellate panel of three judges in December 2010 said e-cigarettes did not meet the definition of medical devices under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The classification would have required clinical trials for e-cigarettes. Devices fall under that law only when marketed for therapeutic use, the judges said. E-cigarette manufacturers proved that their products are marketed for smoking pleasure and not cessation, according to the court.”

Cardiologist Gavin M. Leask of Pee Dee Cardiology Associates has seen the growing prevalence of e-cigarettes in general and from the vantage point of his medical practice. “I certainly have many patients who have used [or] are using them,” he says. “I am aware of several of my patients who have quit smoking using them as an aid.”

Leask points to the fact that there is not much solid evidence yet as to the effectiveness or benefits of these products. “My personal bias and what I tell my patients is that there is little, if any, scientific data confirming their safety or efficacy but intuitively I believe they make sense. I advise my patients to consider trying them if approved aids to quitting have failed. I also emphasize that they should be used as a weaning process with the end point being total tobacco avoidance.”

And for those who actually lay down traditional cigarettes, Leask says that they are already reaping the physical and psychological benefits of quitting smoking. “I believe with time the devices will become a cornerstone of smoking cessation programs as the devices are studied further and more safety data is obtained.”

Not fade away

As vaping continues to grow, the uninitiated might still cast these devices a sidelong glance. Has vaping been accepted in public places?

“A few ladies bought several things, and said they are allowed to vape at the airport. In terms of bars, I’ve got several from the Boathouse who vape, and they absolutely love it,” says VaVaVape’s Deverell.

Because Rock 107.1’s Collins is out and about frequently, he has had the opportunity to vape in many places. “I think it’s coming around, and that more people are appreciating it because they don’t want to be around secondhand smoke. I used to get looks right away, but now everybody’s got them,” he says. “I was at the Boathouse on a Sunday and I must have run into 30 people that had vaporizers.”

House of Blues’ Kelly says he is very conscientious when it comes to vaping, just as he was with smoking in public. “Say when I was walking around Broadway, I would cup my cigarettes – because you almost felt ashamed of smoking. I respect the wishes of people around me, but it [should] go both ways.”

Dula rarely vapes in public – only occasionally when she goes out to eat. “I have had more people look at me strange at traffic lights,” she says. “I have had a few people in public ask about it. When they do, I share my story with them.”

“There are ways to do things and there are ways not to,” asserts iVape’s Battista. “The guy in the restaurant non-smoking section blowing huge clouds and just being an arrogant jerk is bad for everyone. He makes us all look bad.” But he is beginning to see a paradigm shift of sorts. “Four years ago nobody knew what it was. I think there is much more awareness about what’s going on with the product itself. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s definitely getting closer.”

So the vaping continues to explode on the Grand Strand and beyond. And folks vape for various reasons.

“It’s a trend, and for some it becomes more of a hobby,” says Deverell. “There is so much more to it that it becomes a whole new world. The more you learn about how things vape with different tanks and batteries, you can learn so much that it’s huge – and you keep going.”

Ripken Experience’s Wells does not drink, but he enjoys sitting at home at night watching TV and vaping a concoction called Rum and Coke. “I’m also [vaping] this thing called Lava Frost right now. Oh my God – it’s like when you take a hit you are chewing Big Red.” He says he carries three batteries in his pocket to make sure he’s set for the day. “I mean, it’s the best thing since sliced bread to me.”

Battista is optimistic about the future of vaping: “I only see good things coming out of this industry,” he says. “Probably within the next 20 years, we will see the end of traditional tobacco. To me, that’s a good thing. To a lot of people, probably not, especially being in tobacco country.”

Collins says he thinks vaping is misunderstood, but since more and more people are doing it, this is subject to change. “It’s incredible how it’s just exploding. Mark my words: in the next year or two you are going to see more vapers than smokers.”

All of this remains to be seen.

At House of Blues, Kelly has observed an emerging subculture: “There are a lot of people doing it that you wouldn’t expect. I can see people coming in and out of the restaurant all of the time, and they’ve got the vaporizer with them,” he says. “It’s almost like a little clique. You start talking to each other, comparing stories. After 35 years, R.J. Reynolds has gotten enough of my money.”

Weekly Surge is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service