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Shop owners: Tempe ban on e-cigs in public spaces not hurting business

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TEMPE – Thick layers of vapor fill Carl Dewberry’s e-cigarette shop Valor Vapor on a recent afternoon. Some customers chat with one another on couches with slim e-cigarette devices in hand, exhaling vapor into the air, while Dewberry and an employee help others create custom-flavored liquids they will soon “vape.”

Dewberry’s shop has been busy, and he said a second location is set to open soon.

In August, Tempe became the first city in Arizona to pass an ordinance restricting the use of e-cigarettes, or e-cigs, in enclosed public areas including restaurants and bars. Despite the new limitations, Dewberry and others say Tempe’s e-cig industry isn’t slowing down.

E-cigs, or vaporizers, are battery-powered devices that produce vapor instead of smoke that users, or vapers, inhale.

The regulation follows growing concern by health officials over the safety of the vapors, which can contain nicotine and potentially toxic chemicals. There is no solid research finding that e-cigs are or aren’t harmful, but cities like Los Angeles and New York have already enacted similar ordinances.

Owners of several e-cig businesses in Tempe said they haven’t seen a decline in sales with the new regulation, but they’re concerned over the negative light it can shed on an industry they believe to be positive.

“What we worry about is it sends the wrong message to people,” Dewberry said. “We are trying to brand a healthier alternative of living here.”

Valor Vapor and other e-cig shops bill themselves as part of a movement to help people quit smoking tobacco cigarettes and lead them to a healthier lifestyle.

Although they don’t claim that e-cigs are 100 percent safe, owners say that the liquid used in e-cigs is a better alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. The liquids contain propylene glycol, glycerin, flavorings and adjustable levels of nicotine that owners say allow vapers to enjoy the act of smoking without the same level of harmful effects that tobacco would carry.

While multiple studies have been done on e-cigs, there is no evidence that says they are harmless. Dewberry said he recognizes that more research needs to be done on the long-term effects, but he said the immediate proof is evident in the success stories from his customers who have quit smoking cigarettes as a result of switching to e-cigs.

“I have people come in every day that tell me how much their life has improved,” he said. “It really backs what we’re doing here.”

Lee Phemister, owner of Synergy Vapor Labs in Tempe, considers himself a success story. He smoked for 25 years but hasn’t picked up a cigarette since he started vaping.

“I know that it works, and I can tell from my own personal health that it is,” he said. “I see it as a benefit to the community, so to see it frowned upon or banned or regulated in a way that restricts access or the freedom to use the product is never good for business.”

Despite success stories reported by the owners and their customers, Nicole Olmstead, government relations director for the American Heart Association in Arizona, said she and others are looking for proof before considering e-cigs a safe way to help people quit smoking.

“All of those stories are anecdotal,” she said. “There’s no solid, scientific evidence that shows that those products are cessation products.”

Olmstead added that until there is sufficient research that shows what secondhand effects could be the association will continue to support Tempe’s ordinance.

The e-cig shop owners would have liked the city of Tempe to have waited to make its decision until evidence showed that these products could be harmful. However, they said they are mostly upset that the decision wasn’t left to the individual business owners.

“If I was eating dinner, I wouldn’t want somebody blowing vapor into my face or having it drift over while I’m eating,” said Kevin Kim, co-owner of Haus of Vapors in Tempe. “But I think at the end of the day, if you’re at a bar and it’s vape friendly (and) people there don’t mind, I think it should be allowed at the owner’s consent.”

Natalie Higgins, Dewberry’s fellow owner at Valor Vapor in Tempe, said she is worried about how the ordinance will affect those interested in switching to e-cigs as well as her customers who will now be placed back in the designated smoking areas they tried so hard to get away from.

“As far as the ban goes, it’s affected consumers of e-cigarettes just much more than any individual business because having to go out into the same area as smokers, it’s acted almost as a deterrent for people to want to quit smoking,” she said.

Dewberry said the perception of e-cigs will change over time and any further regulations won’t stop its popularity.

“People are always going to want to find that healthier alternative, and we’re here now, and the success stories are abound,” he said. “It’s only natural that in the 21st century in the age of technology that we find a better alternative technology base for smoking.”