Vaping Bars Grow In Popularity In Central Ohio As Lawmakers Move To Restrict Sales Of E-Cigarettes

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UPDATED: Tuesday February 18, 2014 2:48 PM

A bill to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes and other "alternative nicotine products"  to minors is on the Governor's desk, awaiting his signature.  Last week, the State Senate passed a House bill that would fine violators $1,000.

As more people tried to quit smoking, an alternative appeared...electronic or  e-cigarettes.  Now those mechanical devices have launched a new trend, vaping bars.  While many people love them, doctors worry about a new health concern.

Clouds of vapor, not smoke, paint the air in Grove City store.  It's Buckeye Vapors, a vaping bar, a new business born from electronic cigarettes.  The e-cigarettes began to show up in Central Ohio five years ago after a federal tax hike on cigarettes and a state smoking ban in restaurants.

"Some people think they're picking up another vice, this one's a lot cleaner," said Joshua McBride, a co-owner of Buckeye Vapors in Grove City. "You can still have your nicotine. You still have the habit of using it constantly...plus when you use these, they don't stink."

The first e-cigarettes looked like black or white versions of the real thing.  But now the devices, called varitubes, come in rainbow colors and many sizes.  Some even look like pipes.

McBride showed off his black device, which is larger and bulkier than the traditional e-cigarette.

"It's basically the same concept. They all work on a battery, juice, and a heating element," he explained.

McBride said "juice" is the liquid that goes inside.  It's made from propylene glycol, a preservative and vegetable glycerin, a sweetener, as well as flavors and nicotine.  Users either drip the liquid onto a wick, good for a half dozen puffs or insert a refillable cartridge, good for a couple days.  

He said the liquid nicotine is shipped in 100 milligram container.  It's so dangerous that trained staffers dilute it wearing gloves, behind locked doors.

"We actually cut the nicotine down into way smaller doses," he said.

Eighteen milligrams, the amount in one cigarette, is standard.

"We can go anywhere from 24, which is quite high if you ask me, or all the way down to zero. We wean people off of nicotine every day," McBride said.

Some people lounge on sofas or stand at the mixing bar, chat with each other, and vape.

George Male sucked on his varitube, released a vapor cloud, and then let tiny drifts of it trickle out of his mouth.

"I smoked cigarettes for 42 years, and I got to the point where I couldn't breathe," he said.

Ten months ago, he said that he gave up smoking for vaping.  He said he's stopped coughing and can breathe again.

"I don't know how safe it is, but I know what cigarettes did to me," Male said. "I'd have to sit down on the bed to catch my breath before I laid down."

The federal government doesn't know how safe vaping is, either.  There's little scientific research. The Centers for Disease Control says the percentage of teens who use electronic cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. One of them is 18-year-old Tristen Wiles.  

"My older brother did it so I just...like, tried it," she said.

Tristen said most of her friends vape, so she joins them - without nicotine.

"It's just the thing to do, I guess.  It's relaxing.  Yeah, it's cool," she explained.

She likes the flavors.  Buckeye Vapors has 200.

Kim Green puffed on a delicate varitube.

"Strawberry banana smoothie - You can really taste the banana. but it's really good,"  she said.

If customers can't find the exact flavor they want, employees mix more to order.  There are familiar flavors like hazelnut, cherry blossom, and bourbon.  There are more exotic-sounding choices like Bazinga, Rock Star, and Atomic Fireball.

"We have some crazy flavors, and they smell like the flavor," said McBride.

But it's choices like Apple and Andy Candy that worry experts at the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"These are interesting flavors to young children," said Henry Spiller, the center's director.  

He's concerned that kids will get their hands on their parents' flavored "juice" containers and drink them.

"Drink it down, and they're drinking nicotine," he said.

He said that 22 people have been poisoned by liquid nicotine since 2011, three of them just last month.  While 10TV was there, a nurse took another call. At a minimum, Spiller wants the nicotine to come in child-proof packaging because he says even a mouthful could cause seizures.

"The parents are not going to know the risk that - that small bottle held," Spiller said.

McBride is aware of the danger and urges customers to be careful.

"You definitely need to keep it out of reach of kids," McBride cautioned.  

He has children, and waits until they are in bed before he takes his varitube apart to clean it. He won't sell to anyone under 18, and swipes ID's to check.  Still, he's betting that the appeal of vaping will only increase, and hopes 50,000 more people sign on to vaping this year.

Kim Green is one example.

"I just wanted to see what it was all about. And I was intrigued so I tried it myself and I actually like it," she said.

There are about a dozen vaping bars in the Columbus area and no one regulates them. The Food and Drug Administration has talked about regulating e-cigarettes, but so far, there are no national rules.  

Bloomberg Industries predicts that sales of e-cigarettes could pass sales of traditional tobacco products by 2023.

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