Aworldwide craze for electronic cigarettes has sparked a booming business locally for companies creating flavored concoctions laced with nicotine that are inhaled, or "vaped."
ECBlend, Rogue Blends and Vapor Legends are three local businesses that have seen explosive growth in the "juices" that taste of chocolate, coffee and cherry with exotic names such as Dragon's Blood.
E-cigs or e-cigarettes: electronic cigarettes.
Facts and studies:
— Sources: Oregon Health Authority and Journal of Public Health Policy
If you need help
Oregon has a tobacco-quit line to help people get off a nicotine addiction: 800-QUIT-NOW.
"We started with one employee in 2011," said Carol Williams, who owns ECBlend with her husband, Jason. "Now we serve the entire U.S. and 14 countries."
Her company on West McAndrews Road has more than 100 employees. Williams said she already has outgrown the location and leased other offices and warehouse space. She expects to have 150 employees by year's end.
"Juices" refer to the thousands of blends of flavors that are often mixed with nicotine that are vaporized to obtain a cigarette buzz without the cigarette taste — though "Dirty Ashtray" is one flavor offered.
"Vape" or "vaping" are words often used by e-cigarette users, many of whom have ditched their conventional cigarettes for these high-tech, battery-powered devices.
The Oregon Smokefree Workplace Law doesn't apply to e-cigarettes, although they are banned from state buildings. Companies can institute their own regulations prohibiting e-cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration has been working on ways to regulate the industry similarly to tobacco products. At least one early study by the FDA showed some carcinogenic ingredients in some blends.
A Journal of Public Health Policy article in 2011 found that there were low concentrations of carcinogens in e-cigarettes compared to regular cigarettes. The article also suggested e-cigarettes could be a better alternative than smoking cigarettes.
Oregon and federal health officials worry the high-tech e-cigarettes, which started in China and are popular with many celebrities, could be appealing to children.
The number of middle and high school students in the U.S. using e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012, bringing the total who had tried them to 1.78 million, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials worry that acclimating children to smoking behaviors could lead them to start using conventional cigarettes when they get older.
State health officials are skeptical of the "harm reduction" arguments proposed by e-cigarette supporters who have stopped using regular cigarettes.
"The bottom line for us in public health is smokeless does not mean harmless," said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Public Health Division. "The risks posed by e-cigarettes are not fully understood."
Kids getting higher levels of nicotine masked by a sweetened flavor is a concern, Modie said.
Since 2011, the Oregon Poison Center reported 12 calls for unintentional nicotine poisoning from children using e-cigarettes. Five went to the emergency room, Modie said.
The technology involved in e-cigarettes also makes them appealing, he said.
"As we know, people love their gadgets," he said.
Modie said some of the same carcinogenic compounds found in regular cigarettes such as benzene or toluene are also found in vaporizing e-cigarettes, though at lower concentrations.
Local juice companies insist they are putting together the safest blends possible, using food-grade ingredients. They say that some of the early studies showed higher concentrations of carcinogens because they tested Chinese-made blends.
Smokers can select the percent of nicotine in their blends and dial in the amount of "throat hit" they want while vaping.
Users describe e-cigarettes as more discreet because the vapor only leaves a slight odor.
In some cases, e-cigarettes have been used for consuming other drugs, though local companies say they stay clear of those products.
In Medford, the blending of legal juices has reached a fever pitch and is branching out.
ECBlends has opened a tasting bar on Center Drive with plans for a second retail outlet on Delta Waters in about three weeks. The company plans to open more retail outlets in other states.
The Medford store offers a wide range of e-cigarettes that can be recharged through USB ports on computers or in cars. Depending on how much you inhale a day, the e-cigarettes come in sizes ranging from pen sized to a large cigar. Kits for couples are available with two e-cigarettes and two USB chargers.
Hundreds of vials of juice line the walls at ECBlends, offering customers an assortment of tastes to sample from. Custom juice mixes are also available. If there's not enough to choose from in the store, more is available online.
ECBlend mixes four basic ingredients to create a juice: water-based flavors, Kosher propylene glycol (used in asthma inhalers), vegetable glycerine and nicotine.
The nicotine is an option, but about 80 percent of the people who vaporize ECBlend prefer the addictive additive. The company offers more than 400 flavors.
ECBlend's factory on McAndrews is operated like a huge laboratory with workers wearing lab coats and gloves. Nicotine from vendors is tested to make sure it has the correct concentrations and quality. Much of the staff handles quality control to make sure the blends have a consistent flavor.
Evan Benton, a 21-year-old Medford resident, works in the lab.
"I went from three packs of cigarettes a day to vaping," he said. "I love it."
The company adheres to protocols set for the handling of tobacco-based products, even though it isn't a regulated industry.
Owner Williams said she believes that her product is safe and adheres to the certification requirements of the American E-Liquid Manufacturing Standards Association.
Williams is the first to admit that e-cigs aren't for everyone.
"I don't recommend anybody start something addictive," she said.
Adam Russell, owner of Rogue Juices, said, "E-cigs aren't perfect, but they're the best tool to quit smoking that we have. I still feel they're a lot healthier than cigarettes."
Apart from the nicotine, everything else is food-grade ingredients in his blends, Russell said.
"Nicotine does cause blood vessels to be clogged, and it's not healthy for you," he said. He said his nicotine is not chemically produced but is extracted from tobacco leaves grown in the Carolinas.
Russell was a smoker for 15 years when he started making his own blends in 2008.
"When I walk around Target or Walmart and vape, nobody can tell, usually," he said. "If they do smell it, they say it smells like potpourri or desserts."
His friends told him his juices were great, so he started producing more, eventually hiring two part-time employees.
In the beginning, he made hand-made labels including a warning label to keep the product away from children.
He said he needs to produce 1,000, 10-milliliter bottles a week. About a third of his production is without nicotine, or "no nic."
Each bottle provides the equivalent of six to seven packs of cigarettes, Russell estimates.
A bottle costs about $7 versus a pack of cigarettes for about $5.
Working out of his house up until now, Russell has recently leased a commercial space off Bartlett Street about a block from The Commons to produce his juices.
He said he believes the FDA will soon crack down on online purchases of juices, which doesn't bother him because most of his orders are sold out of retail stores such as 42 Degrees on East Main Street.
"I'm able to satisfy everything people liked about smoking cigarettes, but a lot safer," he said.
Matt Padilla, owner of Vapor Legend on South Pacific Highway, said he worked at a mill and got into juice to help his mother quit smoking.
He started making the blends out of his house but opened the store this year because of demand.
Padilla said he thinks e-cigarettes are a safer alternative than conventional cigarettes. He said he switched from chewing tobacco to vaping.
"There's no tar, and it doesn't stain teeth or clothes or walls," he said.
A 10-milliliter bottle of his juice sells for about $4.99, with weekly specials of $3.99. He estimates each bottle is roughly the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes.
Padilla said his sales are booming at his store as customers come in for the 218 different flavors.
"A lot of juices are weak," Padilla said. "We make them a little stronger."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email email@example.com.