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Vaping heats up in New Orleans

Entrepreneur Chris Flowers got creative with e-juices. (Photo: Renee Peck)

Entrepreneur Chris Flowers got creative with e-juices. (Photo: Renee Peck)

Chris Flowers has always been a creative type, from his days in the theater crowd at St. Martin’s Episcopal School and his degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design, to his years as a film industry tech here in New Orleans.

But his life took a creative direction of a very different sort a few years back, when he decided to kick his 10-year, 2 ½-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He switched to vaping.

These days, Chris brews up craft e-liquids in the mixing room at the back of his Crescent City Clouds vaping store. He has perfected a dozen unique flavors, and currently is on version 14 of a new beignet flavor in the works.

Vaping has grown exponentially since hitting the American market a decade or so ago. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 12.6 percent of Americans have tried an e-cigarette at least once, and Reuters reports that vaping is expected to be a $3.5 billion industry by the end of the year. The Oxford Dictionaries 2014 Word of the Year was ... vape.

Invented in 2003 by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist who came up with the idea of vaporizing liquid nicotine, vaping doesn’t rely on combustion, as do cigarettes. Instead, a battery-powered atomizer, nowadays called a vaping pen, is used to heat a specialized liquid, producing vapor that is inhaled. Most vapers are current or former smokers, although U.S. companies are not allowed to advertise vaping as a smoking cessation device. Still, proponents say it's "95 percent healthier" than traditional smoking.

Crescent City Clouds moved to a brick and mortar space a few months ago (Photo: Chris Flowers)

(Photo: Chris Flowers)

“There’s no combustion at all, no smoke,” says Chris, a former Marlboro 22 and Camel Lite guy. “It’s the smoke and tar that kill you.”

Chris decided to start making his own liquids – or e-juices, in the industry lingo -- when he couldn’t find a flavor he liked.

“I personally like fruit flavors, and I could buy the ingredients,” he says. “So I started dabbling with my own DIY flavors.”

E-juice ingredients consist of PG, or propylene glycol, which is the flavor carrier; VG, or vegetable glycerin, which is the base that produces the vaper when heated; flavor concentrates; distilled water; and nicotine. The nicotine can be added in varying strengths, from none at all to a few milligrams to as many as 18.

“My friends were buying my flavors from me, and I needed the supplemental income – film work is not always steady – so I decided to start a business,” Chris says. Like most others in the local vaping retail industry, he began online, selling favorite flavors and kits. “And then when the (movie industry) tax incentives were capped in Louisiana, I decided it was time to open up a retail store.”

Crescent City Clouds has a sampling bar where vapers can test produces. (Photo: Chris Flowers)

Crescent City Clouds has a sampling bar where vapers can test produces. (Photo: Chris Flowers)

He moved Crescent City Clouds into a trim storefront on Earhart Boulevard, its concept modeled after the Apple store. “It’s an open layout, with no barrier between the sales clerk and the customer. I’m not just someone you happen to be buying from; I want to be part of the family. I’m trying to take the wall down between seller and customer.”

Small, neat bottles of e-juice line the shelves. The store carries Chris’s own 12 blends as well as a couple of dozen from other makers. The 30-milliliter bottle is the most popular; it averages around $15 and, for most users, lasts a week or so.

“You don’t usually smoke a whole tank,” says Chris. “An advantage of vaping is that you can take two puffs and come back later.”

E-juice mixing is “a lot of trial and error. I’m like a chef trying to come up with new recipes. Some I throw out, others I combine.”

Many local e-juice blends carry more than a hint of New Orleans, well, flavor. One of Chris’s bestsellers is Rebirth, a blend of pear, lime and honeysuckle. “Pretty much every other NOLA shop has a king cake flavor,” he adds. It took him several months to develop his first nine flavors, and another six to perfect the next three. The latest flavor he’s mixed up is a pineapple and watermelon sherbet.

E-juices are custom mixed and have a one-year shelf life. (Photo: Chris Flowers)

E-juices are custom mixed and have a one-year shelf life. (Photo: Chris Flowers)

“I look for consistency and quality,” he says of his e-juices. “It’s all about finding what tastes good. I have a chocolate mint flavor I go to when I’m craving chocolate.” Its called Dat Mint.

Vaping is not, he says, really akin to smoking a cigarette. “Different device, different sensation. Some mixtures have more ‘throat,’ or bite, recreating that feeling of smoking. But vapers generally want to lose that bite and go for flavor.”

Vaping pens run on batteries that charge either internally, or externally through a USB port. Vaping starter kits cost anywhere from $20 to $100; the only disposable part is the coil, which has to be replaced every couple of weeks.

“It’s cheaper than cigarettes, unless you fall down the rabbit hole and buy a new device every week,” says Chris, who did. “I wanted to try everything.”

Vapers can tailor nicotine consumption by custom e-juice blend, and also ramp the vaping pen wattage up or down to regulate the temperature of the vapor. Men are more likely than women to try vaping, but users are pretty equal between the sexes, according to the CDC. And vapers trend young, in the 18-24 age group. The paraphernalia follows the statistics, with an ever-burgeoning array of pens entering the competition, such as a new Tiffany blue device aimed at women.

Vaping is new enough that it still is undergoing government scrutiny and oversight. Regulations across the country can be inconsistent and are still evolving.

“When the smoking ban happened in New Orleans, we were lumped into it, even though there is no secondhand smoke with vaping,” Chris says. “So a bunch of shop owners got together and formed the Louisiana Association of Electronic Cigarette Retailers, or LAECR (pronounced lacer). We fight for the rights of our businesses and customers against unjust regulation.”

To that end, the group, which includes vaping businesses in the New Orleans metro area, has hired a lobbyist in Baton Rouge to keep an eye on vaping legislation. Last year, Louisiana legislators voted to tax vaping, at a rate of 5 cents per milliliter of e-juice.

“I consider that a nicotine tax,” says Chris. “But nicotine patches and gum are not taxed at all.”

LAECR also has lobbied successfully for the right to hold vaping conventions – a big trend in the industry – where vendors can showcase their wares indoors. The city’s first vapers convention, held in November, drew 500 exhibitors and 3,000 attendees.

Like many cultural trends in New Orleans, vaping is something of a grassroots phenomenon here, says Chris. Friends swap news, flavors, vaping finds. They chat on Facebook.

“Vapers are very loyal people. It’s like your local coffee shop. New Orleans is like that. Everyone has his or her own bar to go to. I like the community. I’ve met a lot of friends smoking. It’s the same with vaping.”

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]