Joe McAllister smoked a pack a day. He would panic if he didn't have a full pack of smokes with him. Every winter, the 44-year-old would come down with bronchitis or pneumonia.
He started trying to quit almost four years ago, using "the whole gamut" of smoking-cessation tools, including nicotine patches and gum, he says. He tried quitting cold turkey. He spent almost $600 on hypnosis, only to light up on the drive home.
But a trip to Vapoligy in Garden City with his wife turned him on to something that has kept the Boise couple smoke-free since mid-December. The couple was about to take a road trip to Salt Lake City to visit some friends, who are Mormon.
Out of respect for their friends' faith, they didn't want to smoke in the car or at their friends' home. So they stopped by Vapoligy to learn about electronic cigarettes and "vaping" - a term for using e-cigarettes, battery-operated cylindrical devices of various sizes that heat nicotine-infused liquid to make a vapor that is inhaled.
McAllister bought a starter kit of electronic cigarettes and stopped smoking two days later, he says.
The device allowed him to trade smoke for vapor without giving up the usual smoker habits or going through nicotine withdrawal. That, he says, was the trick. It turned out also to be the key for his wife, his cigar-smoking son, his daughter and his daughter's boyfriend, all of whom now use the e-cigarettes.
"Here's the amazing thing," McAllister says. "I'm able to walk past somebody who's smoking and not crave a cigarette."
His family's experience is an example of the booming demand for flavored e-cigarettes sold by Vapoligy, a local company that is growing with an addict's intensity.
Vapoligy isn't the only e-cigarette vendor in the Valley - several tobacco-shop chain retailers and locally owned businesses sell them.
Carl Hamilton, a former Vapoligy customer, opened ECigs by S. Wick in November at 208 N. 9th St. in Downtown Boise. The shop has a focus on selling American-made components, and sales have "probably quadrupled" in the past few months, Hamilton says.
Wholesaler and manufacturer Lotus Electronic Cigarettes opened in January 2012, has about 25 employees in its Boise call center, and sells to about 13,000 stores nationwide, according to owner Mark Ciccarello.
The number of people who "vape" in the U.S. is growing exponentially, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group with no local members. The group reports about 50,000 electronic cigarette units sold in 2008. Last year, the industry sold 5 million units in the U.S., and it's on track to sell 8 million this year, the association says.
Jim and Ginger Longden, 40 and 37 years old, jumped on the trend just as it was beginning. After four years of selling their products through a website, they opened a Vapoligy store at 9225 Chinden Blvd. in October 2011. The store had almost $1 million in sales in its first full year, Ginger Longden says. They say the company hasn't yet turned a profit, because it is reinvesting all of its earnings in the business.
The Longdens will open two more Vapoligy stores in the next couple of months - across from Walmart on West Overland Road in Boise, and on Caldwell Boulevard next to the Reel Theater in Nampa. Their three- to five-year goal is to have Vapoligy products in smoke shops in every state. The headquarters will move to a much larger space at 11915 Executive Drive in Boise this spring.
IT STARTED AT A KITCHEN TABLE
The Longdens were heavy smokers back in 2007. They wanted to quit.
"As a father of six children, I didn't want to leave them," Jim Longden says.
He learned about e-cigarettes from a YouTube video and decided to order a kit online from China.
"The flavors were horrible, and I didn't know what chemicals were in it," he says.
After researching and talking with people in the industry, he found a supplier to sell him the nicotine, which he says he had tested for heavy metals and other impurities. He bought flavorings created by U.S. candy and food-flavoring companies.
The glycerin used in the liquids comes from industrial and chemical supplier Univar in Nampa. The bottles come from Container Packaging Supply in Eagle.
Then Longden sat down at the kitchen table and started mixing, "like making cookies from scratch without a recipe."
He worked at a call center at the time, so he was making the e-cigarette ingredients for his and his wife's use, during his free time. But friends started asking him to create new flavors, and what started as a hobby grew into a business.
The Longdens launched their Vapoligy website in spring 2007, filling online orders and saving money to open a storefront. They have no investors or loans. There were many nights of macaroni-and-cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner, Longden says.
The company now sells 36 flavors, including six that mimic tobacco and three that are Jim Longden's favorites - cinnamon bear, sweet cigar and "executive cigar." Vapoligy sells to customers from as far as Australia, to resellers Big Smoke and Tobacco Connection regionally and to other resellers in neighboring states. It also sells e-cigarette components, which generally are made in China.
Vapoligy has 29 employees, including store employees who can receive a quarterly bonus based on store sales. But Jim Longden says workers are not paid on commission, so that selling doesn't become their end goal.
RISKS AND REGULATION
There is, however, a mighty but slow-moving shadow hovering over the industry in which Vapoligy operates: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA has issued warnings to the industry and the public for years, saying the supplies aren't FDA approved, may be produced with lax quality controls, and cannot be marketed as a cure for smoking.
It also points to flavored e-cigarette "juice" as a temptation for young people, which, combined with nicotine, could be a gateway drug for cigarettes.
The FDA can step in - with a warning letter, an injunction or consent decree, or by seizing the product - if an e-cigarette company makes unsupported "therapeutic" claims, though the FDA doesn't spell out what counts as therapeutic.
The agency plans to propose a regulation that would give it more enforcement authority over e-cigarettes, according to an FDA spokesperson. The agency wants more research into the potential public health benefits or risks associated with e-cigarettes. Longden says he'd like to see more research, too - a 40-year study, for example.
The Vapoligy owners know they're walking a thin line with what they can say. Their website's FAQ asks, "Will e-cigarettes help me stop smoking?"
"Current U.S. standards do not allow us to state that this is a 'smoking cessation [device],'" the website answers. "With that being stated, my experiences have shown me that, yes, for the vast majority e-cigarettes have either helped people to stop smoking completely or at least greatly diminished the amount of analog cigarettes they smoke. ... Now keep in mind that everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for the next."
It concludes, "To be totally honest, if we didn't think they could help people stop or reduce their tobacco consumption, then we would not be selling them."
Longden says he wants to "save millions of lives" by helping people quit smoking. "A smoker is an addict, and an addict is never cured," he says. But he wants to replace the tobacco addiction.
He says Vapoligy coaches smokers to stop thinking of tobacco cessation as a "pass-fail" binary. That makes someone who falls off the wagon once give up, thinking he may as well go out and buy a whole carton, he says.
Longden's stance on safety is, "When you cook, is steam not emitted from your pots, from your oven?" Same with making lollipops and fudge, he says. "[You're] taking a food-based flavoring and heating it."
The FDA isn't alone in being skeptical of that premise. Most smoking bans include electronic cigarettes. Boise's smoking ban does not - an exception Jim Longden says he pushed for. That exception was "one of our big stepping stones" last year, he says.
Longden says he stands behind his lab's work and wants to keep "vapers" from being lumped in with smokers.
McAllister says he's not worried about health risks. He compared the ingredients and prefers nicotine, glycerin, propylene glycol and food flavorings to the additives in cigarettes.
Because nicotine is a stimulant that e-cigarette users can dial up or down to "dose," he says it's possible to vape too much. But it's not hard to tell when that's happening, he says: When he gets dry mouth, he takes a drink of water and stops vaping for a while.
Then, there's the money. Vapoligy's owners expect to hit $3.5 million in sales this year.
McAllister says a starter kit for himself and his wife, plus extra flavors and a second "head" for the device, cost them about $80. He says vaping runs him about $15 to $17 a month, compared with $5 a day for cigarettes.
He figures he has spent about $30,000 in his life on cigarettes. The money he's saving is an incentive to keep using e-cigarettes, he says.
So is the feeling that he's a "vaper" instead of a smoker, and not having to worry about "my 5-year-old granddaughter looking at me, going, 'Grandpa, you stink.'"
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448