By Lindsey Hodges and Danielle Kennedy
Comfortable lighting, tasteful art, good music and a slight, smoky haze give off a cozy atmosphere at Whit. E. Octopus in Columbia, where the owner and employees make and sell vape juice, run a bar serving craft beer, and prepare for becoming a music venue.
It’s a different look from the usual vape shops that dot Columbia and could signal a change in direction for the emporiums that provide an alternative to smoking.
Most vape shops are lined with machines, which are called mods, and juice. Though Whit. E. Octopus Vapors isn’t just a store, they sell these nonetheless. The variety of these vaping tools is seemingly endless. Mods come in all sizes and capabilities. Juice flavors range from sweet, candy-like flavors, to mellow tobacco flavors, to floral flavors.
Ricky Loftin, of Village Vaping in Columbia, says the vaping business “changes like computers,” which contributes to the ever-growing selection of mods and juice.
While many people vape as a cheaper, healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes, it has become a hobby and a way of life for many others. Luke Moore, founder and owner of Whit. E. Octopus Vapors has made it his job.
But debate still rages over whether the e-cigarettes cause cancer and should be more closely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Although not all vape juice contains nicotine, chemicals in certain vape juices could be harmful. Buyers in South Carolina must be 18 and older. The American Cancer Society does not recommend using e-cigarettes. As an alternative, they recommend using patches or gum to break the smoking habit.
The first patent for an electronic cigarette was filed in 1963, but the e-cigarettes only recently became popular in mainstream culture. In 2006, Chinese researcher Hon Lik introduced his electronic cigarette and the subculture of vaping took off. With it came vape shops that are now dotting the landscape across the Midlands.
Vaping, Moore says, can be cheaper than smoking depending on one’s level of involvement. “There’s not really a one-to-one comparison that can be made,” he says. As an alternative to cigarettes, it can be cheaper. As it turns into a hobby, it starts costing more.
“So you go into a cigarette shop or you go into a convenience store and you look at the wall and you’re going to see, you know, a wide variety of different cigarette packs,” Moore said. “Ultimately though, they’re produced primarily by three different companies and each pack is ultimately within the price range of about $2, give or take.”
“The difference with vaping is that there’s such a broad range of everything that it entails, that you can vary from, like, 25 dollars to multiple hundred dollars, and with juice it’s the same thing,” Moore says.
Aside from the cost, another benefit of vaping over smoking is the lack of a strong smell. “There’s no stink on you, there’s no stink on your car,” Loftin says. He says some people even like the way that vaping makes their home or car smell.
Flavors of vape juice vary much more than cigarettes do, as well. There are light and menthol cigarettes, but vape juice flavors range much more. Whit. E. Octopus Vapors has a line of 21 flavors. Popular flavors include Pilar, a key lime pie, and Thunder Child, a fruity black tea, Moore says.
A flavor that is surprisingly less popular, he says, is tobacco. According to Moore, cigarettes desensitize taste buds, making people think that they want a tobacco flavor, but as their taste comes back, they realize that they prefer other flavors.
Moore started making his own juice in 2013 and compares it to a home cooked meal versus one at a restaurant.
“The reason I did it is because that pricing structure was vastly less expensive for me to start mixing on my own, almost like with anything, right? It’s cheaper for you to go to the grocery store, take the food home and make your own supper than it is to go out to a restaurant to eat,” he said. “And the quality of it is going to be a little fresher and you know what’s going into your food.”
Making vape juice involves four ingredients, Moore said: vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, nicotine and flavoring.
“All of these ingredients, besides nicotine, every human being comes in contact with these ingredients on a daily basis,” Daniel Shealy, employee at Whit. E. Octopus said.
The ingredients are important depending on what type of vape experience one wants, Moore said. If a juice has a higher vegetable glycerin content, it creates bigger clouds. If it has a higher propylene glycol content, a hit is felt more in the throat. Many people who want the same effects as smoking want that throaty hit, as it replicates one from a cigarette, Moore says.
An additional important aspect to vaping is taking care of mods, the box-like cylinder that is used for vaping. Videos of mods exploding in people’s pockets can be easily found online.
Moore said it all depends on the circuit created with the battery. Mechanical mods are more dangerous and require stricter care than their newer counterparts, called regulated box mods.
Moore compares mechanical mods to vinyl records, they take up more space, wear out over time and require more care, but people still listen to them for nostalgic reasons. Regulated box mods, however, Shealy says, are “idiot proof.”
Moore says that vape shops face more direct competition with online retailers like Amazon, but have a clear advantage: face-to-face interactions and customer service.