The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 20, 2014

Business brisk at Mankato's first e-cig store

By Tim Krohn tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Anyone wanting to try electronic cigarettes will need to learn a new vocabulary that includes terms such as clearomizer head, RDA atomizer, mods, drip tip and smoke juice.

“This isn’t the typical smoke shop,” said Scott Meschke, general manager of the newly opened Ecig Crib in Mankato.

E-cigarettes have grown from obscurity five years ago to $500 million in sales in 2012 and over $1.5 billion last year. E-cigarettes sales are expected to top traditional cigarette sales within the next decade.

Since opening the first exclusively electronic cigarette store in Mankato this week, Ecig Crib has been busy with Meschke and several employees waiting on a steady stream of customers.

Ecig Crib has a spacious showroom with a counter displaying the battery-powered devices used to deliver a vapor from flavored juices containing nicotine. Some resemble cigarettes or cigars while others are larger and can contain various adapters that hold larger batteries and other add-ons. A basic kit costs $10 with custom kits with cases selling for nearly $200.

Nearby is a room lined with bottles of juice in 140 flavors. “We can mix and match the level of nicotine they want from 2 milligrams up to 24.”

Meschke said someone trying to quit tobacco who smokes two packs a day might start with a 15-milligram e-cigarette mixture. “They work their way down to zero.”

Myron Siemieniewski of Eagle Lake has smoked for 30 years and tried quitting many times. He was testing some flavors and trying out a vaporizer.

“It’s different, it’s not like tobacco smoke. But the flavors are good, I’m trying the pipe tobacco flavor. It’s kind of sweet,” Siemieniewski said.

“It costs about $70 to get started with this. I figure that’s only about 10 packs of cigarettes.”

Customers can test various flavors for free, using tiny bottles of juice containing no nicotine attached to a vaporizer. Because Mankato recently passed an ordinance banning the use of e-cigarettes indoors in public buildings, customers have to go out a side door to try the different flavors. (North Mankato this week delayed a decision on issue.)

Meschke said they will be building a “vaping hut” outside with heaters to take the chill off for customers.

Flavors include cigar- and tobacco-based flavors, applewood and Kentucky bourbon flavors, as well as a variety of herb-based flavors. And there is a wide variety of more exotic and sweet tastes with names such as snickerdoodle cookie, ambrosia and strawberry hill.

The sweet-flavored juices have led critics of e-cigarettes to accuse the industry of trying to attract children to use the products. Critics also say that too little is known about the health effects of e-cigarettes and the nicotine they contain.

Meschke said the store only sells to those age 18 or older and checks IDs.

“People get a little shot of nicotine without all the chemicals and second-hand smoke.” And, he said, many customers say that having the device in hand and puffing on it — even if they are down to little or no nicotine content in the juice — fulfills the psychological pleasure associated with smoking.

Overwhelmingly, he said, customers tell him they want to try the e-cigarettes because they want to quit tobacco.

Still, the store does not market e-cigarettes as devices to quit smoking. That's because the rules surrounding e-cigarettes are still unclear and being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and others.   

As for the sweet flavors, Meschke said customers like the variety and finding flavors they enjoy. “It’s just as likely a guy will get watermelon (flavor) as a woman. There’s no gender difference.”

And Meschke said the cost savings of e-cigarettes compared to tobacco are staggering. The store’s 30-milliliter bottle (about 1 ounce) of juice sells for $17.95. “That’ equals 2 1/2 cartons of cigarettes. It’s a tenth the cost of smoking.”

While many cities have been moving to treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco and with Congress and states asking for the Food and Drug Administration to quickly restrict the sale of e-cigarettes, the potential risks versus possible benefits remains an open question.

Recently the past president of the American Lung Association, Charles Connor, said e-cigarettes may be “the breakthrough product” that stomps out conventional cigarettes.

Connor, who headed the Lung Association from 2008 to 2012, joined the Electronic Cigarette Industry Group as a paid consultant.

“I tried all my life to get my mother off smoking, without success,” Connor told U.S. News. “I just buried her in December due to the failure of her lungs, undoubtedly due to cigarettes. I am deeply committed to eliminating tobacco cigarettes from the American scene.”

With millions of adults switching over in part or entirely from conventional to e-cigarettes, Connor says they may be “the breakthrough product that gives the smoker an alternative.”

Ecig Crib is next to Hancock Fabric in the Hobby Lobby strip mall. Ecig Crib (ecigcrib.com) also has two shops in the Twin Cities and one in Superior, Wis.