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Philadelphia's 'vape lounge' scene creates community for quitters

Every time Guong Truong reaches into his pockets, he has to make sure batteries don't fall out. They're important to his hobby, in essence serving as its lifeblood by providing the electrical current from which Truong draws his pleasure.

To lose these lithium-ion cells would be the cardinal sin in Truong's set, opening him up to the chance to go back to the "analogs"—as the community has dubbed them—he's fought to remove from his life. But, still, at the risk of troubles like dropping money on fresh batteries never fired, the issues of Truong's hobby have all been worth the rewards.

"This has allowed me to go from having an embarrassing habit to a conversation starter," he says. Call them "vaper problems" if you want, but for a growing number of ex-smokers in the US, the trade off is increasingly becoming a no-brainer.

Truong, 28, is a co-owner of Exclusive Vape Shop on 7th and South, a newly opened business counting itself among a growing number of "vape lounges" to which Philadelphia is currently playing host. Different from a head shop or straight smoke shop, vape lounges and vapor shops focus exclusively on the similarly growing e-cigarette and personal vaporizer market with a boutique twist. Essentially high-tech hookah bars, spots like EVS offer the Cadillac version of the common "cig-a-like" e-cigarettes like blus or NJOYs available at convenience stores all over the city.

"The whole goal is a hookah that's more portable," Truong says. "But with this, everything is a statement piece—even down to the juice." And all that in less than a decade.

E-cigarettes were invented in 2003 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik. They hit the US around 2006. Since then, countless variations on Lik's design have cropped up, but all essentially operate by using an electrical coil and wick system to vaporize a mixture of vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, flavorings, and usually—but not always—nicotine (aka "juice") that come in any style from cotton candy to traditional tobacco. The result, vapers say, is a nicotine delivery system devoid of the negatives usually associated with cigarettes.

Those claims, however, have not yet been evaluated by the FDA, leading to the e-cig kerfuffle we've seen develop this year. Opponents worried about candy-flavored e-liquid's potential to recruit children, the unregulated nature of the e-cig market, and the as-yet-unknown side effects of personal vaporizer use have escalated the issue into an FDA regulation point. Currently, the push is to treat e-cigarettes like tobacco products, which would create deeming regulations that some shop owners say will cripple the growing electronic cigarette trend.

"Trying to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product would produce higher costs and get rid of flavors," says John Poole, owner of the Philly-based Ecigg, an online retailer with lounge locations in Roxborough (though not in their original location), Delco and, soon, South Philly. "If we only have menthol or tobacco flavors, it would kill us. Half the battle was getting away from the tobacco flavors."

Shops like Ecigg and EVS, which offers its own line of juices blended in-house, essentially make their bread and butter from their walls of exotic flavors. To remove them would leave high-powered devices vaping an extremely limited collection of liquids by today's standards. However, the FDA was supposed to make a ruling on the issue last month, its plan eventually getting caught up in the Office of Management and Budget for approval. The OMB, for its part, has indicated support for tobacco-style regulations.

For now, though, the electronic cigarette industry is free to grow—and that includes its number of positive testimonials.

Lik's invention has since given way to a community commanding a $1.7 billion market that pumps out all manner of rebuildable atomizers, clearomizers, mechanical mods, variable voltage devices, drip tips, cartomizer tanks, and just about any other jargon-y piece of equipment one can name. Small compared to the $90 billion cigarette market, but not insignificant. And, thanks to community-oriented brick-and-mortar spots like EVS, that community only stands to grow larger.

Around the corner from EVS at Love Vape on 5th and South, shop co-owner Michael Chhem, 23, is seeing new faces every day among a growing customer base of "hardcore vapers." Since opening in the beginning of November, Chhem says Love Vape has helped roughly 30 or 40 smokers make the transition to some form of e-cigarette.

Realistically, compared to Philadelphia's smoking population, which stands at about 25 percent of all adults in the city, Love Vape's quit count is miniscule. But it's one shop that's been open for one month. So, the theory goes, as more people discover the world of flavors and devices as shops open up, the bigger that proportion will grow. Shops like Love Vape, EVS, and Ecigg, after all, seem to wear their ability to help their customers along to a tobacco alternative like badge of honor.

"I feel like I've found something that will help people," Chhem says, adding that all owners at Love Vape are ex-smokers. "We felt that our knowledge would help people. I personally spent about $2,000 before I found what I like. So everything in the store is hand-picked."

Chhem is now passing his experience on to his customers in guiding them to the exact devices, starter kits, and flavored e-liquids that will fit the parameters they think will best help them quit. For about $30 to $40 and up, beginners can grab a suitable starter kit that will give the desired nicotine intake, "throat hit" or feeling, and a set of batteries that will keep their device firing all day. And, indeed, it is that type of guidance and community that keeps people interested in a developing technology like this one in the first place.

"Everything becomes a hobby," he says. "People tend to branch out from regular devices after quitting cigarettes because there's that pleasure of knowing you have a trophy piece."

Which, of course, reveals a small but important fundamental difference between e-cigarettes and the traditional cigarette. Beyond being a reaction to Big Tobacco rather than an extension of it, e-cigs are also something to be cherished, obsessed-over and endlessly customized. Cigarettes, on the other hand, are packed, lighted up, burned and tossed in the gutter, existing for mere minutes in the user's hands.

E-cigs, though, those last forever. That is, if we let them.