Durango may be locked in winter’s icy grip, but the vapor coming from people’s mouths isn’t necessarily hot breath hitting cold air.
Another possibility is vaping – a relatively new trend that is taking hold in this mountain town and raising concerns for local health officials.
Electronic cigarettes, or vaping as it’s called, is another form of ingesting nicotine without smoking tobacco. Three shops have opened in less than two years in Durango, each selling battery-powered vaporizers and nicotine-infused e-liquids with names such as Sweet Cream, Apple Jacks Cereal and Cinnamon Sugar Cookie.
Retailers say the smoke-free alternative can help people stop smoking cigarettes. It has fewer chemicals than tobacco and little aroma compared with cigarette smoke, they say. But health officials say vaping is essentially the same thing as smoking: It is a nicotine delivery device with minimal testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There is no conclusive research that it is an effective way to stop smoking, said Claire Ninde, interim assessment planning and communications director for San Juan Basin Health Department.
E-cigarette use among youths tripled from 2013 to 2014 nationally, which correlates with an increase in advertising by the vape industry, she said.
“This very dramatic rise in e-cigarette use among youth has offset a lot of gains made in the reduction of the use of tobacco among youth, so it’s unfortunate,” Ninde said.
Several aspects of vaping appeal to youths, including the battery-powered machines, flavorful nicotine mixtures and trendy apparel. There are also organized “cloud competitions,” in which users exhale thick vapor to make rings, “tornados,” “cloud dragons” and “jelly fish.”
It is possible to purchase vape juice without nicotine. But e-cigarettes are classified as tobacco products in Colorado, making it illegal to sell them to anyone younger than 18.
Vapors Vape Shop, which opened about six months ago on College Drive in Durango, specializes in bigger units that allow people to blow big clouds and do tricks, said employee Hunter Hooks, who recently left his job at the shop.
“It’s almost turned into more of a hobby than it is something to try to quit smoking cigarettes,” he said.
Hooks said he smoked for five years and chewed tobacco for five years but couldn’t kick the habit until he started vaping.
“This is the only thing that has given me full relief,” he said.
Candy Weathers, 35, of Bayfield promised her grandmother who had cancer that she would stop smoking. One year and one day after her grandmother’s death, Weathers gave up her Marlboro reds and started using a vape pen. She started with 32 mg/mL of nicotine per juice container, but after two years, is down to 12 mg/mL.
Part of smoking is the habit of going outside with friends and holding a cigarette, she said. Vaping allowed her to continue the social aspect.
“It’s just like a cigarette, except it doesn’t have all those chemicals in it,” she said. “You can smoke inside, and it doesn’t bother anybody.”
But most landlords and businesses treat it the same as cigarette smoking. They’re not allowed to be used inside dorm rooms at Fort Lewis College, in part because the clouds have set off fire alarms, said college spokesman Mitch Davis.
Vaporizers range in price from $22.99 for a beginner’s kit to $300 for devices that allow users to dial in with greater accuracy how much inhalant they receive, said David Whipple, manager of Riverview Vapors, which opened in April 2014. The more expensive units are more durable, he said.
“When you buy a $22 one, you’re going to drop it and probably be walking back in here with pieces in your hand,” he said.
Vape devices are essentially battery packs that heat a coil and turn the juice into vapor. The juice usually consists of vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol. Riverview Vapors has about 2,200 flavors it can mix, including almond, wintergreen, cantaloupe and coconut.
“If you can imagine it, we can pretty much put it together,” Whipple said.
Vapor users must refill juice cartridges, which cost about $6 for a 10 mL container. On average, vapors go through one cartridge every two days, Whipple said.
Customers who walk into Riverview Vapor are almost certain to notice a cherry-like smell.
“They’re really appealing to a college kid, because who at that age wants to smell and stink like a cigarette when you can hit this thing a few times and hide it from your girlfriend?” Whipple said.
Vaping is catching on across the West, but it could be another 10 years before it becomes mainstream, he said. Several companies sell and give away apparel such as T-shirts and hats that promote the vaping culture.
“It’s definitely going to stick around,” he said. “There’s more than just a couple of people who believe in this.”
Health officials are not among them.
Similar to tobacco ads, the vape industry tries to appeal to people’s sense of “independence and rebellion,” Ninde said.
“It’s a cool factor,” she said. “It’s a little bit alarming. We know that nicotine is addictive.
“This is not a safe alternative to smoking.”