By now you've probably seen someone taking deep drags from a long, straight, electronic pipe and then blowing out billowing clouds of white smoke. But it's not smoke technically. It's water vapor (and lots of other stuff).
Electronic cigarettes, or vaporizers, have burst onto the Memphis market in the past year. Many cigarette smokers have eagerly adopted the devices believing vaporizers are less harmful than traditional cigarettes and that they can help them stop smoking altogether.
Eager consumers equal big business, and the vaporizer trade is booming here. Hundreds of stores, from gas stations to big-box chains, carry the devices. Nearly a dozen stores in the Memphis area specialize in vaporizers, and many of them deal in them exclusively.
Fred Bahhur brought his VaporWize chain to Memphis in July. When his newest store opens on Houston Levee in the next few months, it will be his fifth store in the area. He said vaporizers are a "booming trend" and a "very popular business right now" and that the product he sells "really helps people out."
He couched that last statement with a caveat. He is not a medical professional, and he knows the products have not yet been approved for use by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). But he said he thinks vaporizers help people quit smoking cigarettes.
"As a user and a supplier, I have to believe that [vaporizing] is the lesser of the two evils," Bahhur said.
But no one knows yet if vaporizers are safer than cigarettes or if they're harmful. The fact that smoking traditional cigarettes is harmful comes from years of research, but little data exists on the use of vaporizers because they are a newer product. The sole FDA study on vaporizers found nicotine and many cancer-causing agents in both the vaporized "smoke" inhaled and exhaled by users.
"When people think they're 'vaping' and that it's just water vapor – oh no, it's not and it smells," said Teresa Cook, a clinical psychologist and the health behavior coordinator at the Memphis Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center.
Cook said vaporizers are showing up more and more on the Memphis VA campus. As the "facility tobacco cessation champion," she is rewriting hospital rules on vaporizing to classify them as a tobacco product and limit their use only to designated smoking areas of the campus.
State laws do not yet regulate where Tennesseans can vaporize. The Tennessee Department of Health followed the FDA with a public health advisory in February that urged consumer caution in using the products until more is known about them.
But a bill before the Tennessee General Assembly would begin to define vaporizer use here. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve McDaniel (R-Parkers Crossroads) and Sen. Doug Overby (R-Maryville), would specify that vaporizers are not tobacco products and that using them is not considered smoking. This would specifically allow users to vaporize in state-owned buildings and vehicles, University of Tennessee dorms, and tattoo-working areas. The bill would also remove taxes applied to tobacco products from vaporizers and their accessories.