SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - It is considered by many in the medical community to be the next big thing in chemical addiction, or at least in the means of delivering it.
E-cigarettes, vaping, cloud chasing, e-puffing. It all went commercial in this country in 2006. Invented by the Chinese, it is already a $3 billion a year industry.
For those who saw the trend and built their shops and customer bases early, huge profits have been almost instant. But the winds of change are about to blow. And as an industry, vaping as we know it will never be the same.
Step into any of the more than 100 vape shops in the Savannah area and you don't smell a thing. It's one of the more attractive characteristics of e-puffing. There is no ashtray breath, no yellowing teeth and stained finger-tips. And then there are what seems like a billion flavor choices.
Nancy Truong owns Southeast Vapes. She now has two location in Savannah.
"Our industry is geared more towards people who are current smokers, who are trying to find a healthy alternative to kick that bad habit," she said.
Or start one, says Dr. Kelly Solms. She, and dozens of other local pediatricians, are convinced this is nothing more than a demonized industry's latest attempt to build a young audience for a new kind of smoking, your kids being the real target.
"They're much more attractive to them because they're flavored clearly as an attempt to get their attention with things like bubble gum, fruit or cinnamon. We know those things can be fairly dangerous as additives," said Dr. Solms.
And that is part of the problem. The vaping industry is currently operating on its own planet, practically free of regulation, free of licensing and safety guidelines, free of the taxing mechanisms that control most other businesses that produce something you ingest.
Trust me, the Food and Drug Administration is working on it. In the meantime, those in the business now are not only counting their profits, they're counting their blessings.
Once the federal regulation does come down on vaping and it will come down, you'll see shops like this one facing all kinds of restrictions they never faced before. About the kinds of juices they can sell, where they can vape and of course, taxes. And once the feds finish, the states will likely jump into the regulation ring. In fact, some states are already looking at taxing vaping supplies by some 95 percent. Those with a business plan that are prepared for that kind of regulation will likely be fine. Those that are not will see their business plans go up in smoke.
So what's taking so long? E-cigarettes have already been around now for 10 years. The simple answer: testing.
Not enough time has passed to tell what these things can do to the body. And everyone has an opinion on that.
"There is evidence that even the nicotine in an e-cigarette can be passed in the vapor and that people around an e-cigarette can be registering a nicotine level," says Dr. Solms. "So, we're looking at second hand vaping."
That's still being debated. But it is statements like these that have the vaping industry understandably nervous that new regulation will take the genie, and put it back in the bottle.
Drew Smith will tell you vaping changed his life.
"When they see me blowing clouds off my vape, everyone's either curious or terrified," said Smith.
What really terrified this 20-year smoker, was the impact cigarettes were having on his health.
"The greatest thing I found was, 72-hours after I started vaping, I didn't want a cigarette anymore," says Smith. "Within two weeks of quitting cigarettes and just vaping, I got my smell back, my taste back and even energy. I've doubled by walking distance, my exercise regimen."
Smith has joined 36,000 others in signing a national petition aimed at preventing a ban any of the products currently on the market. Fellow Vaper, Tara Bridges says that could reverse the effects vaping has had on her life.
"My lung capacity has changed drastically," she says. "My taste buds are better. My energy level is up. Everything is better because of vaping."
Vaping is no fly-by night industry today. There are already half a dozen slick magazines dedicated to the habit or hobby, vaping clubs, blogs, even national vaping conventions.
Federal regulation could arrive as early as the first of next year, the part of the industry that will likely see the biggest change will be in the manufacturing of those flavored juices.
"That will drive a lot of small businesses out simply because that's the majority of their revenue is from making their own juices," admits vape shop owner, Nancy Truong.
That's a sacrifice most who are in for the long term, are willing to accept. What goes into these devices is also the biggest concern of the medical profession.
"We find this is a lot of products that are not regulated by the FDA, that they will label it as one thing and there may be other things present," says Dr. Solms. "There have even been lead, tin, nickel and chromium found in some products."
But for vapers like Tara and Drew, the only thing they and tens of thousands of others have found in these products is an alternative to a cigarette, and a second chance at a healthier life.
We could not find a study out there or a medical professional who did not admit vaping is less harmful than cigarette smoking.
Also, with all the talk of vaping being a gateway to cigarette smoking for kids and younger adults, every study we looked at in my three months of research found that better than 90 percent of those who picked up vaping, did so to try and quit smoking.
Vape shops in town will tell you the same is true of their clientele.
We'll let you know when the FDA decides who, when and how you can vape in the future.