Exploring SA's Fledgling Vaping Scene 

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Vaping Connoisseurs

click to enlarge Vape Air treats vaping as a high-class affair with its cigar-lounge feel. - SARA LUNA ELLIS
  • Sara Luna Ellis
  • Vape Air treats vaping as a high-class affair with its cigar-lounge feel.

Maxey and Sterling's stores cater mainly to mainstream vapers — folks who enjoy the ritual, the flavor and the health benefits they feel from keeping off cigarettes.

Others cater to a more niche market: vapers whose interest in tinkering with their vaporizers borders on obsession. This crowd, including Vape Air Lounge's Brown, tends to skew younger. There's an arms race among them to see who can blow the biggest clouds, and who can eke the most flavor out of their modified e-cigs.

Like any sub-culture, there's a certain thrill in rattling off the kind of opaque jargon that's gibberish to the uninitiated. And rattle they do — about new gear, modifications, flavors. Talking shop is half the fun and weighing the merits of an ever-expanding menu of juice flavors is a favorite topic of discussion.

Vaping flavors have sped past the normal array of what you might find at the snow cone stand.

The most popular flavor at Brown's shop, for instance, is Heisenberg — a Breaking Bad homage made by Innovape that tastes like "blue ice pops." Campfire by Velvet Cloud Vapor tastes like graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallows. An earl grey-flavored juice made by Vigilante Juice Co., dubbed Grey Ghost, mixes "tea steeped to perfection ... with sweet cream, tied together with a twist of lemon."

Discussions at the counter of any vape store in town sound more like a sommelier's convention than any conversation in a head shop.

Vapers waft fumes from tiny bottles to their noses, complimenting the earthy notes from an oak barrel-aged juice. Shop owners show off high-dollar premium flavors, their caps sealed in wax like a bottle of Maker's Mark.

Juice prices run the gamut. There's something for everyone, even vapers on a budget.

"Some of it is just Boone's Farm juice and some of it is like the most complicated French wine you could ever get," Maxey said.

Flavor fads come and go, too. In San Antonio, cereals were big a couple months ago — now it's yogurt.

Different demographic groups also tend to have their favorites. Recent cigarette smokers tend to look for tobacco flavors. For whatever reason, Brown said, women in their 60s and 70s favor key lime pie.

Health Risks?

click to enlarge SARA LUNA ELLIS
  • Sara Luna Ellis

Airman 1st Class Tom Le, who moved from Oregon to San Antonio after joining the Air Force, prefers Blackjack — a tart mix of blueberries and jackfruit. A rare vaper who has never smoked a cigarette, Le buys juice without nicotine.

Le started vaping after learning about it from his friends. He likes the smell and the taste, and he uses it as a way to unwind.

"Work is so stressful, I just [vape] at home to relax and have fun," Le told the Current outside Thanks for Vaping shop on San Pedro Avenue.

Le is convinced that vaping won't harm his lungs. But that's not an opinion shared by many health professionals in SA and beyond.

Michael Siegel, a professor of health science at Boston University and a tobacco industry expert, said that he was extremely skeptical of e-cigarettes when he first heard of them around 2006.

"I just assumed that it was a new tobacco industry ploy to try to pretend that they had come out with this new safer product," Siegel said.

But Siegel dug deeper. He poured through reams of reports and listened to personal accounts of vapers. What he found surprised him.

"My interpretation of the science is that there's no question that electronic cigarettes are much, much safer for you than tobacco cigarettes," Siegel said — even if they're packing nicotine.

That doesn't mean e-cigs are risk-free. Since they're still a fairly new technology, little is known about the long-term effects of vaping. And only the most lemming-like disciples assert that vaping is completely healthy.

"Putting anything into your lungs that's not air is a detriment to you. We realize that, and we never candy-coat it," Maxey said. "It's always billed as harm reduction."

Sandra Adams, a pulmonologist at SA's University of Texas Health Science Center, worries that the message may not get through to everyone.

Adams, who gets asked about vaping "every day," conceded that vaping is fine for people who are already addicted to cigarettes. But she's worried about potential long-term effects and whether too many kids are attracted to the bright packaging and assorted flavors.

The number of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

Many e-cigarettes also lack regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, which means that juice formulas can vary from brand to brand or even bottle to bottle.

"If you can go from one or two packs a day to an e-cigarette and then get off, I think that's a really great option," Adams said. "But there needs to be a quit date for the e-cigarette as well."

She likened the current state of research to cigarettes in the 1950s — when even the country's surgeon general smoked. Back then, some tobacco companies and health professionals alike touted cigarettes as a weight loss and focus tool.

"[E-cigarettes] haven't been around long enough to know the toxicities and the problems with long-term use of the devices," Adams said. "We're probably going to find out that they're much more harmful than they're advertised to be right now."

Although she loves her vaporizer and doesn't understand the panic over using it, Velasquez's goal is to eventually stop vaping altogether.

"It's healthier than cigarettes, but not vaping is healthiest," Velasquez said. "I could have never quit without it. It's been a game-changer for me."

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