Dominic Sanzone inside of his Revolver e-cigarette store and lounge on Norse Way. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Sitting on a couch flush against a wall lined with the art that adorns his vapor lounge, James Demetra takes a drag off what looks more like a pencil sharpener than smoking device.
The tip of the long, skinny stick glows red and colored liquid inside the chamber sloshes back and forth as he brings it to his lips. In between hits, he reminisces about the lone cigarette in his closet that started out as skeleton that haunted him daily, but over the past eight months has faded like keepsakes from an old flame.
He presses the button and the tip glows red. He breathes in and exhales a fruity aroma that dissipates as he talks about how electronic cigarettes helped him defeat the unfiltered demon living in his closet and ultimately lead to him owning his own e-cigarette store and vapor lounge.
“It used to be my ‘in emergency, break glass’ kind of thing,” Demetra said. “I’ve been meaning to throw it away but I just don’t notice it anymore. I still see it…but it’s like I don’t care anymore.”
Demetra and Dominic Sanzone took different paths to becoming owners of two of Long Beach's electronic cigarette shops, but both have arrived at purveying the latest trend.
Last year, Demetra, a native of Houston, opened a music store called Dawn of the Shred in Lakewood Village near Long Beach City College’s Liberal Arts Campus. Last month, he decided to convert the front of his music store into a so-called “vape shop”, which he christened Vapes of Wrath, a subconscious ode to his own western pilgrimage.
Electronic cigarette starter kits on display.
Sanzone, a cigarette smoker for 12 years, wasn’t motivated to quit until his two-year-old daughter asked him “Daddy, you stink. Why do you always go outside and come back in smelling?” Months ago, he decided to take the plunge into the emerging market that was e-cigs.
Living in Toledo, Ohio, the corporate capital of retail chain Revolver Electronic Cigarettes, he was surrounded by the brand’s large presence and intrigued by the device that currently has helped him live a smoke-free life for the past year. So intrigued, that when he moved home to SoCal, he opened his own franchise at 4158 N. Norse Way, less than a mile from Vapes of Wrath.
With their two shops flanking LBCC, Vapes of Wrath and Revolver represent hubs for what is a growing vaping community in Long Beach. Both lounges provide different ways for patrons to unwind. Vapes of Wrath, with more of a coffee shop vibe, is lined with paintings, couches and even has gaming console where vapors can relax and play video games.
Revolver has a more streamlined feel and is filled with chess boards, a plasma television and an overhead music system that pumps out tunes while customers puff out plumes. A handful of other local e-cigarette shops comprise the group of business owners that would be hurt by the possible passage of a California Senate Bill that would render their lounges illegal because it would classify electronic cigarettes as a tobacco product and prohibit them from being smoked indoors.
Sanzone says that regardless of the law, converts to vaping are here to stay.
“If you’re smoker and you switched, you know the difference in how you feel,” Sanzone said. “The vapers now aren’t going to go back to normal cigarettes and smokers are going to keep looking for ways to get healthier.”
Electronic cigarettes come in many shapes and prices, ranging from the disposable types that can be purchased at convenience stores for a few dollars and resemble real cigarettes to the more complex vaporizers sold at vape shops which can sell for upward of several hundred dollars. The user fills a tank with a nicotine solution that can come in various flavors and potencies and presses a button that heats the solution into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. Although some of the solutions emit an aroma because of the flavoring, studies conducted by The Federal Drug Administration has yet to provide any concrete evidence that the second hand vapor presents the same kind of dangers as the more than 4,000 chemicals present in second hand smoke.
Flavored vaping liquids contain varying amounts of nicotine from the same amount as a regular cigarette to none at all.
Demetra is a believer that electronic cigarettes and the vapors they produce are innocuous and should continue to be legal to smoke indoors.
“Supposedly you absorb 98 percent of the nicotine so the vape you exhale is supposed to be about as dangerous as sitting next to an espresso machine with the steam that that puts off,” Demetra said. “So as far as affecting people around you, they’re not equal.”
Electronic cigarettes, which were first sold in the United States in 2007, have become big business. Sales for the product are approaching $1 billion and according to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, usage of e-cigs doubled among smokers from 2010-2011, with one in five smokers now reportedly having tried vaping.
Sanzone, who owns and operates the only Revolver franchise in California, admits that the upfront cost of vaping is sometimes a deterrent to somebody interested in getting into it, but the real savings are discovered over the long haul. He says that based on the price of a starter kit at Revolver, which would cost about $60, a customer could save about $1,300 over the course of a year instead of paying $6 a day for a pack of cigarettes. But the money isn’t the only thing driving this ex-smoker.
“I’m here to sell a product that I know works,” said Sanzone, who after 12 years of smoking, attributes the fact that he hasn’t smoked at all this past year to electronic cigarettes. “It’s a great feeling seeing somebody finish a cigarette right outside my shop, come in and buy a kit, come back in two weeks later to buy some liquid and say ‘Man, I haven’t smoked a cigarette since I’ve bought this.’”
Members of the vaping community lounge at Vapes of Wrath.
Law makers though, don’t share the shop owners‘ views. The State Senate’s Judiciary Committee convened April 30 and advanced SB-648 to the floor for a vote, which if passed, would classify electronic cigarettes as a tobacco product and hold them to the same restrictions. That means that electronic cigarette users that had grown accustomed to vaping inside the office, at bars or even in the privacy of their own homes, could be relegated to making the trip outside to join conventional cigarette smokers.
Demetra said that in addition to the lack of evidence proving they’re dangerous to others, the ban could have a monetary impact on the State whose budget is already spread thin.
“It would be dumb for the state of California to stop this,“ Demetra said. “Right now its one of the largest burgeoning markets, so just the tax revenue that can be generated should be enough to stop them from wanting to close these things down or equate them to cigarettes and smoking indoors.”
The fight to regulate electronic cigarettes started over four years ago when the FDA unsuccessfully tried to halt shipments into the US which ended in a lawsuit with a federal judge ruling the agency had acted outside its authority. In 2010,the agency then tried to classify them as drug delivery devices like nicotine patches and gum. However, the agency lost the court case because electronic cigarettes aren’t marketed as smoking cessation devices. Sanzone agrees that there should be some regulation with the product but thinks that it should be a collaborative effort and not something imposed with no tangible basis for the law.
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It’s estimated that over 45 million Americans still smoke with most of them wanting to quit because of dangers they know they pose to their health. The economic impact of those health risks was highlighted by an article published last year by the New York Times, stating that federal estimates show that smokers cost employers an average of $3,391 due to lost productivity from smoke breaks and health care costs. A trend that could alleviate that problem was published last month when a British study showed that not only did the majority of people start smoking electronic cigarettes to help quit regular ones but that of the 1,400 people surveyed, nearly 75 percent had replaced conventional smokes with electronic ones.
Having both converted and feeling the health benefits of e-cigs, Demetra and Sanzone are confused why something that can get people to quit something that is still the leader in preventable deaths in this country-smoking-is being pushed out the door by lawmakers. The health benefits, which has yet to be discredited by the FDA because they are such a new product, and those trying to quit something that has been proven to be deadly is something that Sanzone says the Senate should really focus on when casting their votes.
“I feel a million times better,“ Sanzone said. “I can breathe, I don’t wake up hacking a lung. I’ve seen it time and time again, traditional cigarette smokers have made the change and its like they almost want to thank us for being available for them.”
Vapes of Wrath is located at 4103 Viking Way, Suite D, (562) 420-8281. Revolver is located at 4158 Norse Way, (562) 452-7452. For more information about electronic cigarettes, read the Food and Drug Administration's information page.