The air inside Lucky’s Vape Shop and Lounge is covered in a thin fog.
People are smoking in the lounge located 575 W. Douglas, but it doesn’t smell like traditional tobacco – there are hints of watermelon and apple.
That’s because they’re smoking e-cigarettes – electronic devices used to inhale hundreds of different flavored vapors, sometimes with nicotine, the addictive substance in traditional cigarettes.
Supporters say the devices help people quit smoking and don’t have the cancer-causing ingredients of traditional cigarettes.
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But because the industry is largely unregulated and relatively new, health advocates warn that the effects of using e-cigarettes are unknown.
For Kevin Nguyen, co-owner of Lucky’s, a relative who smoked for 30 years and died from lung cancer was the trigger to quit smoking himself.
He tried other methods that didn’t work, but when he visited family in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, he was introduced to “vaping,” which helped him quit.
It’s a younger crowd at Lucky’s on Thursday night, but Nguyen says they have customers of all ages. It was an easy choice to open the lounge in Delano last year, he said.
“It’s a pretty laid back, chill area,” Nguyen said. “We felt like it would just be a cool spot to have a place down here and bring this place back to life.”
On the second Saturday of each month Lucky’s hosts a Vape Meetup. This month, they had a contest for “the most hellacious cloud.”
For many, it’s as much about the social culture as it is about substituting e-cigarettes for tobacco.
“I got into it because I find it very intriguing,” said Tony Truong, a former hookah smoker who works at Lucky’s. “But I never use nicotine. I just do it for flavor.”
He said there are vape hobbyists who like to create their own electronic cigarettes in various shapes and sizes.
“A lot are limited production or from foreign countries, so it’s a hobby to try to collect them,” Nguyen adds as he shows off one that looks like a cube.
E-cigarette sales grew an estimated $500 million in 2012 to $1.5 billion in 2013, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, a nonprofit organization that operates in the U.S. and overseas.
There are more than 20 stores in Wichita that sell e-cigarettes and related items and many have opened in just the last six months.
“They’re popping up like crazy,” said Jeremy Weber, who was a two-pack-a-day smoker.
In October, he and his family opened Vapor E-Cigarette, 3137 W. Maple.
“I decided this is real and not a gimmick and wanted to help people,” Weber said. “The word is definitely out about it in Wichita now. The market is there. The demand is growing. ... I was skeptical (about e-cigarettes) because I tried everything – the patches, gum and inhalers. I even tried hypnosis. I tried everything I wanted to quit smoking so bad.”
The popularity of e-cigarettes has “skyrocketed” among Kansans, according to a report by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which was released in February.
The report found that about one in 10 Kansas adults and one in three Kansas adult smokers had tried e-cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration has not fully studied e-cigarettes and has yet to release rules on how they will be regulated.
“We don’t even know how effective or ineffective they are in helping to quit smoking,” said Tara Nolen, tobacco health educator for the Sedgwick County Health Department. “We don’t know if what’s in them is better or not. It’s the stance of a lot of health organizations not to use them until we know more about them.”
The “juices” sold at Lucky’s, which are heated up to create the vapor, have up to three ingredients: vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and optional nicotine, the addictive substance in traditional cigarettes, Truong said.
Propylene glycol is “ generally regarded as safe,” by the FDA, according to its website.
But retailers can sell different liquids and some make their own, which can make it difficult for people to know for sure what’s in the products – and even harder for the government to test them for safety.
Health advocates say among their biggest concerns is that children could be influenced to smoke.
Between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of high school students who had ever tried e-cigarettes rose from 4.7 percent to 10 percent, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That is one of the major issues – all the flavors and things being marketed. And the ads,” Nolen said. “It’s kind of like those old-school tobacco ads where people are looking sexy and cool. The flavors, I know adults who like the flavors, but they smell like candy.”
In 2012, the Kansas Legislature made it illegal to sell electronic cigarettes to people younger than 18. It’s also illegal for minors to have possession of e-cigarettes.
Nolen said e-cigarette stores are not subject to an access ordinance to help ensure they don’t selling to minors unless the stores also sell tobacco.
Government regulation is inevitable, Weber says. For now, he regulates himself.
“There’s no regulation for childproof caps on bottles, but I did it because I thought it was a good idea. And there’s no regulation for ingredients or nicotine levels, but I’ve listed all the ingredients,” Weber said.
“I will not sell to anyone under 18, not even a battery,” he said. “They’re not permitted in the store if they’re under 18. If you look under 30, we’re going to card you.”
In 2010, Kansas passed the Indoor Clean Air Act, which prohibits smoking tobacco in most indoor public places.
For now, it’s up to individual business owners to determine if they will allow e-cigarettes in their establishments.
Until there is more regulation, Nolen suggests people stick with traditional tobacco cessation products.
“There are a lot of tried-and-true products available, such as nicotine gum and patches,” Nolen said. “They can use things that have actually been proven effective.”
Contributing: Associated Press