With names such as Vapor City and BJz Vape Shop, new businesses popping up around Sacramento make clear they're not selling old-fashioned smokes.
These vendors hawk electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, whose sales have skyrocketed in the past few years. E-cigarette enthusiasts call themselves vapers, and many view "vaping" as a benign alternative to actual smoking – albeit one that still delivers a nicotine kick.
Legislators and health advocates aren't convinced.
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, has introduced legislation that would treat e-cigarettes – which use a battery to vaporize a solution of fogging agents, flavors and nicotine when the user drags on them or presses a button – like cigarettes and ban them from restaurants, schools and workplaces.
Health groups, including the California Medical Association, warn that e-cigarettes are not medically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are subject to little in the way of quality control.
"Health professionals are very alarmed," Corbett said. When more than 150 opponents of her bill, SB 648, began vaping en masse in the hallways of the Capitol, passers-by coughed and choked on the vapors, she said. She cited a recent study from UC Riverside that shows small levels of heavy metals in secondhand e-cigarette vapor.
"These are cigarettes," the senator said. "They might be fancy, high-tech cigarettes, but they're still cigarettes."
Introduced in 2004, e-cigarettes – primarily made in China – have attracted a following. Industry revenue has doubled every year since 2008 and is anticipated to hit $1 billion this year. Big U.S. tobacco companies have taken note and are rolling out their own e-cigarette lines to compensate for falling cigarette sales.
To Barry Smith, who owns the Electric Cigarette Lounge in downtown Sacramento, the devices are "miraculous." Smith and other e-cigarette boosters say the product can help smokers get their nicotine fix without the stigma or fatal side effects of cigarettes.
Ryan Galvan of Sacramento counts himself among the converted. After smoking Marlboro Reds for 18 years, he and his wife now "vape" instead, a much more economical habit.
Today, he said, "it only costs us roughly $20 per week, whereas before, we were spending $85, $90."
E-cigarettes have become more fashionable. Some new models are less bulky and hard to distinguish from cigarettes.
Their growing popularity has triggered a fierce debate about how e-cigarettes should be regulated, and whether they pose significant health risks. A Senate committee analysis of Corbett's bill notes that the cigarette industry has successfully resisted having the product regulated as a drug by the FDA. In response, anti-smoking activists are pushing to have them regulated like tobacco.
Stan Glantz, a professor of tobacco control at UC San Francisco who supports Corbett's bill, said e-cigarette companies brought the increased scrutiny upon themselves.
The companies, he said, "talk out of both sides of their mouths. When it's convenient to be a cigarette to avoid FDA (medical) regulations, they're a cigarette. And then other times, they say, 'We're not a cigarette.' "
In 2010, Corbett succeeded in passing legislation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Her current bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting consideration in the Assembly.
Opponents of Corbett's legislation, which include makers of e-cigarettes, say lumping them in with their traditional counterparts makes no sense. The California Association of Alcohol/Drug Educators, a group that accredits addiction counselors and their training programs, has endorsed the use of e-cigarettes to help people quit smoking, and has announced its opposition to SB 648.
Several studies also suggest e-cigarette vapor is safe for users and those around them. A Swiss study earlier this year concluded that liquid used in e-cigarettes was accurately labeled and that impurities in the vapor were unlikely to be harmful. A Polish study released in March found toxins such as formaldehyde and lead at far lower levels than those in cigarette smoke.
Jan Parcel of Cupertino spoke against Corbett's bill during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She's a vaper and a volunteer with the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, or CASAA, a nonprofit group that claims more than 4,000 members nationwide.
In response to a 2011 FDA study that found nicotine in secondhand vapor, Parcel said that chili peppers and tomatoes contain some nicotine, too.
What about other toxic chemicals? Parcel pointed out that nonstick pans and fried foods also have been found to contain carcinogens.
Parcel argued that e-cigarettes are a consumer product and shouldn't be regulated like a tobacco product. "Coffee varies wildly in caffeine, but I don't see anyone saying that Starbucks has to be regulated," she said.
CASAA doesn't reveal where its money comes from, other than to say the majority of its donations are made by e-cigarette users through the group's website. Carl Phillips, the group's scientific director, said in an interview he has received funding from tobacco companies, and said working with the companies themselves is the best way to reduce the harm of tobacco.
"You gotta go where the money and the power and the marketing ability are," he said. "To maintain some sense of purity at the expense of practicality – well, people are dying in the meantime."
Phillips said smokeless options such as e-cigarettes are "the single most potentially beneficial public health innovation in the Western world."
Such alternatives pose "so close to zero risk that it hardly matters," comparable to occasionally breathing exhaust fumes while walking on the street, he said.
Still, many experts say more research needs to be done before e-cigarettes are labeled a poison or a better way to quit smoking, and they agree that the products are just too new for their long-term effects to be known.
In the meantime, the e-cigarette business continues to boom.
"Regulation will dampen it (business) a little," said Mark Rivers, who owns the new Vapor City store that opened June 22 in Arden Arcade. "But I really don't think people are gonna stop, because so many people dig it."
Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.