A handful of electronic cigarette shops that have popped up in Anchorage strip malls in the last year have found themselves at the center of a growing controversy over how the country regulates high-tech smokes.
Proponents of e-cigarettes say the devices, which produce a nicotine-laced vapor, can help people quit smoking traditional cigarettes. Health officials argue that there's not enough research to label them safe.
In Alaska, state law has yet to address the budding industry.
On a recent afternoon, Vincent Hinderliter stood inside the Midtown e-cigarette shop he owns, puffing on a slender tube attached to a lanyard that he wore around his neck. It gave off a faint, but sweet, smell inside Alaskan's Smokeless.
"It's not smoking," Hinderliter said. He prefers the word "vaping." "I would equate it more to inhaling steam."
State lawmakers attempted to outlaw indoor smoking across Alaska during the most recent legislative session. For the first time, the definition of smoking would have included using the battery-powered e-cigarettes inside, making illegal what Hinderliter and many customers do in the shop. The bills got stuck in committee.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldonta, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he didn't know if the e-cigarette clause would stick when the legislation is reintroduced next session.
"I would say I feel much more strongly about the effects of secondhand smoke from traditional tobacco than I do about protecting Alaskans from the contents of e-cigarettes," Micciche said. "I don't think we know enough about the dangers of electronic cigarettes at this point."
Only local governments in Palmer, Haines, Petersburg and Nome have cracked down on indoor vaping. In Anchorage, the most populous community in the state, it's still legal.
19 and up
What's illegal everywhere in Alaska is selling nicotine products to anyone under the age of 19. Nearly three dozen states have banned e-cigarette sales to minors. Alaska does so without naming the device.
A sign on the door at Alaskan's Smokeless forbids entrance to anyone under 19. The sign is posted voluntarily. No one told Hinderliter to put it up. Most of his clients are adults, he said, many in their 40s or older who want to give up tobacco.
"It doesn't belong in the hands of minors," he said about the products he sells.
Joe Darnell, an investigator with the state's Tobacco Youth Education and Enforcement Program, said enforcing the age restriction falls upon all law enforcement agencies.
But it's difficult to know where e-cigarettes are being sold because they operate under a general trade business license, he said. Unless the shops use "vapor" or "vape" in their names, they are unsearchable, unlike tobacco shops, which have their own classification in the state's business licensing system.
Darnell said he didn't know how many shops sold e-cigarettes in Anchorage. Neither did health officials or the state department that issues business licenses. Darnell estimated that there are between 10 and 15.
Made to order
Hinderliter said he opened Alaskan's Smokeless in October, leaving his job in construction, because he wanted to help people quit smoking like he had: by using e-cigarettes.
"I was kind of one of those kids who started way too young," he said.
He had been smoking for about 15 years until his mother sent him a package from Arizona on his 28th birthday. Inside was a vaping kit. He never went back. "Since I started vaping, I wanted to pay it forward," he said.
Now Hinderliter sells e-cigarettes that cost from $30 to $200 and come in about 150 flavors, from merlot to bubble gum to tobacco.
The flavoring is one component of e-juice -- the liquid heated by a rechargeable coil inside the e-cigarette and transformed into vapor. Other ingredients include vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and, sometimes, nicotine.
Customers can chose how many milligrams of nicotine per milliliter of solution they want. He recommends heavy smokers start between 12 and 18 milligrams and work their way to a smaller percentage. Hinderliter started at 34. He is now down to 6.
Thirty milliliters of e-juice costs $20. A person typically vapes between 0.5 and 1.5 millimeters a day, he said.
Hinderliter mixes e-juice in a back room that he said he allows no one else to enter. He's proud to say all of the ingredients are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Alison Kulas, manager of the state's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, said while that may be true of the ingredients themselves, the FDA does not approve the mixture once it is combined and heated.
"You don't know what you what you're getting in your e-cig fluid," she said. "Because it's unregulated, you kind of just have to take the person's word for it."
She said the health department does not recommend the e-cigarette as a way to quit smoking.
A 2009 study done by the FDA found cancer-causing substances in some e-cigarette samples. Other FDA tests found nicotine in e-liquids that claimed to have no nicotine.
Last month, the FDA proposed new rules that would extend the agency's authority to e-cigarettes, prohibiting sales to minors and forcing e-cigarette companies to disclose their product ingredients. The rules won't be finalized for at least a year.
An indoor plume
Matt Gill, who owns downtown bar and restaurant Ginger, said he'd like to see indoor vaping made illegal.
Gill opened his business about seven years ago but didn't begin noticing plumes of vapor until last year. He has only had to ask one person to stop at the request of nearby customers.
"We've haven't had a whole lot of it, but you do see it here and there," he said. "I know we would be happy if there were some regulations that ban them."
But Hinderliter said he thinks access to e-cigarettes should be easier for adults, not harder -- and he's one of a growing number of vape shop owners in Anchorage who hope to make a living catering to adult customers.
Mark Militello owns SUMO Vapor, an e-cigarette shop set up in a strip mall on Arctic Boulevard. He said allowing customers to test e-juice flavors in his shop is a big part of business. As Militello sees it, comparing cigarettes to e-cigarettes is like comparing "apples to oranges."
"The word electronic cigarette -- it's unfortunate the word cigarette has to be put in there," he said. "I prefer 'personal vaporizer.'"
Whatever it's called, Militello said business is booming in Anchorage. His store opened in December, and now he has plans to open up a booth for e-cigarettes at the downtown Anchorage Market and Festival, which opened for the season Saturday.
"When you talk about the industry, in one year's time, it's blown up," Militello said.
Contact Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.