FARMINGTON — Electronic-cigarette stores are popping up all over San Juan County. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to evaluate these cigarettes for safety or effectiveness, many who use the devices give them credit for helping them quit smoking.
Electronic cigarettes, known more widely as e-cigarettes, contain a battery-operated heating element that, when activated, converts liquid inside an atomizer into a vapor that can then be inhaled. The liquid consists of vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, and users can also add flavors such as green apple, coconut candy, piña colada, and even tobacco flavors. Some users "vape" (inhale the vapor) merely to enjoy the flavors, while others opt to add various levels of nicotine.
Tammy Garrison and her daughter Amanda Litschke recently opened the Vapor Zone e-cigarette store, located on North Dustin.
"To me, it's a healthier alternative to smoking," said Garrison. "There are no carcinogens and there's no second hand smoke."
Her 33-year-old son, Tim Garrison, said he smoked tobacco cigarettes since he was sixteen. After starting to use the e-cigarettes 9 months ago, he has, for the most part, given up smoking. He says the fact that the e-cigarette feels like smoking a real cigarette has been much more effective than using nicotine gum and other smoking cessation methods, precisely because it does mimic smoking.
"I'm able to inhale what feels like smoke, and blow it out. It feels just like smoking, and I don't even crave a cigarette anymore," he said.
One concern about e-cigarettes is that those who opt to add nicotine will become addicted and will progress to eventually using tobacco products. Litschke, a licensed respiratory therapist who said she conducted extensive research on the safety of e-cigarettes before agreeing to open the store, said the opposite is occurring.
"I have not noticed anyone increasing their nicotine levels. They normally continue to reduce them," she said.
Garrison and Litschke believe the e-cigarettes to be safe, and even claim there may be some health benefits for those who use them, but they said they are careful not to sell any e-cigarette products to children under 18. They have a sign prominently displayed in the store that states as much.
Both women said it's only a matter of time before the FDA imposes regulations on e-cigarettes, and said they agree that some regulation is needed.
"I just don't want them to regulate them the same as tobacco, because there's absolutely no tobacco involved in these," said Garrison.
Phillip Bachicha, Special Projects Coordinator for Tobacco Enforcement in New Mexico, confirmed that there currently is no regulation in the state prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes.
"The (federal) government was supposed to come out with guidelines on e-cigarettes in October, but they still haven't," he said. "Some states have come out with legislation, and I think it may be discussed in this next (New Mexico) legislative session."
After operating a successful e-cigarette store in Las Vegas, N.M., Chris Roske and a partner decided to open a branch, called Vaper's, in the San Juan Plaza. He says business has been slow because the local market is now over-saturated with e-cigarette stores.
Like Garrison and Litschke, Roske believes e-cigarettes are effective for those who have had a hard time quitting smoking.
"I have helped several hundred people quit smoking," he says. "I smoked since I was twelve and was able to completely quit a year and a half ago, thanks to the e-cigarettes."
Roske said about 25 percent of his customers do not request nicotine in their e-cigarettes, but are instead vaping for the flavors, and because it's become a fad.
Roske does not sell nicotine to those under 18, but he said he is not worried about e-cigarettes eventually leading young people toward smoking tobacco cigarettes.
"Anyone who smokes e-cigarettes would not want to go on to smoke cigarettes — the smoke and taste is so nasty compared with e-cigarettes," he said.
Roske has also never seen a customer increase their nicotine level, and believes many of the negative stories coming out about e-cigarettes might originate with the tobacco industry, which is losing scores of cigarette customers who are opting instead for e-cigarettes.
Nineteen-year-old Tyler Glatz, one of Roske's customers, said that up until a month ago he used a can a day of chewing tobacco, but gave it up for e-cigarettes.
"I tried to quit on my own before, but once I started the e-cigarettes, I completely stopped," he said. "The e-cigarettes have a lot of flavor, and they give me something to do all day long."
Dr. Sugar Singleton Marcy, director of San Juan Health Partners in Aztec, believes it's too early to make judgments.
"My personal feeling is that they're a million times better than smoking cigarettes," she said. "They don't have all the dangerous chemicals that cigarettes do, so I'm cautiously optimistic about them. I'd prefer people quit altogether, but if they can't, they're definitely better than smoking."
Singleton Marcy said that while anything that helps people quit smoking is beneficial, she does believe e-cigarettes should be regulated like tobacco products, and that they should not be sold to those under 18.
Singleton Marcy acknowledges that e-cigarette users can become addicted to nicotine, but added that this is a relatively small concern in comparison to the harm that can come from tobacco products.
"The dangers from smoking (tobacco) come from the other aspects of it, not from the nicotine," she said.