Barry MacRay still remembers his first cigarette. A Pall Mall. Red. He was 14.
Forty years later, he is trying to kick the habit. Again.
"The patches made my heart flutter," MacRay said. "The (nicotine) gum, I'd chew (until) my gums bled. I even tried acupuncture."
He's hoping electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, will do the trick.
That's why MacRay walked into Vapes of Wrath on a recent afternoon. The shop, near Long Beach City College, is among a crop of e-cig stores in Southern California where "vapers" pick up their supplies for the battery-operated devices, which deliver nicotine, water and flavors to the user.
E-cigs can look like the real thing, or, in the case of those sold at Vapes of Wrath, more pipe-like, typically silver, and outfitted to the style of the user, with colorful and ornate tips. Flavors range from fruity to earthy. The pipe-like devices are commonly called "vapes."
The Vapor Spot opened last August on Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, the second location for a Los Angeles company that claims to be the first shop in the nation "focused completly on smoke-free living."
General Manager Louis Alonzo said the San Fernando Valley store draws a mix of smokers trying to kick their cigar or cigarette habit and those who enjoy the vaping experience.
"We just had a guy in here who said he's 55 and has been smoking for 35 years and needed to quit," Alonzo said. "This is probably going to work for him."
Among younger people in a lounge-like shop in Long Beach with soft sofas in the back and bright paintings on the walls, MacRay pressed a button on an e-cig, inhaled, then exhaled a large plume of vapor that looked like smoke, except it was odorless, and dissipated within seconds. The taste was close to menthol.
It may have been good enough to make MacRay give up his Benson & Hedges.
"It's a possibility," he said. "I have a lot of nieces and nephews who asked me if I'd be smoke-free, and this is the closest to attaining that."
James Demetra opened Vapes of Wrath about three months ago. A transplant from Houston who moved to California about eight years ago, he was running a guitar-repair business at 4103 N. Viking Way, Suite D, until Blake Robinson, a 20-year-old vaper, walked into the store one day.
Robinson was vaping, and Demetra grew interested. The shop was soon transformed into a hub for vapers, with one guitar encased on a wall, and Robinson behind the counter, sharing his zeal for vapes.
"There weren't many shops at the time, so I decided to give it a go," said Demetra, a soft-spoken, 31-year-old with a full beard and tattoos on his arms.
Between re-rigging vapes and talking with customers -- ranging from punk rockers to college kids to middle-aged women--Demetra recalled quitting smoking a couple of years ago, when his daughter, then 4, would pull away from the smell of smoke.
"I didn't quit because I didn't like the nicotine," he said.
E-cigs were introduced to the U.S. in 2007. Projected to be a $1 billion business this year, they have been touted as a safe alternative to tobacco.
More than 45 million U.S. adults smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke each year.
And those smoke breaks are costly. More than $96 billion a year is lost in medical costs, on top of $97 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the CDC.
Be it for health reasons, the expense, or to get a loved one to stop nagging, millions of Americans each year try to stop smoking. A growing number have turned to e-cigs as an alternative, though they are no longer marketed for that purpose.
E-cigs have various levels of nicotine to suit a vaper's cravings. But whether they are indeed safer than real cigarettes is fodder for much debate, as they also contain glycerol and propylene glycol.
The naturally occurring glycerol is used by some for weight loss, to keep hydrated and other health benefits. Propylene glycol, a synthetic liquid which is used in asthma inhalers and by several industries as an antifreeze agent, is added to e-cigs to dilute the nicotine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says e-cigs have not been studied fully, and users cannot yet know whether they are safe and beneficial, or what amount of harmful chemicals they are inhaling.
In August, the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee will meet to discuss "the risks and potential benefits of a proposed modified risk tobacco product."
Mitchell Kushner, city officer for the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services, one of only three city-operated health jurisdictions in the state, said the FDA is under pressure to make a ruling regarding the efficacy of e-cigs.
"There's not a lot of information, as far as health impacts, that are available to us," Kushner said. "The research is not there yet."
In 2010, federal Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the FDA could no longer stop the importation of e-cigs from China. Leon wrote that the case appeared to be "yet another example of FDA's aggressive efforts to regulate recreational tobacco products as drugs or devices."
Smoking Everywhere, a Florida-based e-cig company, filed the lawsuit against the FDA.
Ray Story, formerly the chief executive officer of Smoking Everywhere and now the CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, said by phone that the fight against e-cigs is being led by pharmaceutical companies that push pills and other products they say will help people quit smoking. And they don't want to lose the market to e-cigs.
"They have a major interest for this product not to become a product that has the ability to compete with conventional cigarettes," Story said. "The problem is, at the end of the day, if we educate and let people understand what this product is really about, then the environment will be a better place, if everybody starts using e-cigs instead of conventional cigarettes."
Story said e-cigs need to be regulated to ensure good manufacturing standards.
In California, lawmakers are considering a bill introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-Fremont, that would regulate e-cigs like tobacco products and ban them in smoke-free areas.
Of concern to health officials like Kushner is that e-cigs may model the real thing to such an extent that young people may take up smoking.
At Vapes of Wrath, a counter of flavorful juices awaits newcomers and veteran vapers alike.
Word-of-mouth in the growing vape community brings them in. Customers can buy items called Snake Oil and the like.
Start-up kits generally range from $50 to more than $300. Vapers can choose the amount of nicotine they want to inhale. By some estimates, a 30-milliliter bottle of juice equals 15 packs of cigarettes. Depending on pricing, that could amount to around 60 cents per cigarette pack.
And e-cigs and vapes aren't just a young person's fancy. Vapes of Wrath once served a customer who started vaping because she wanted to hang out with friends on smoke breaks at work.
"At the end of the day, it's got all the social benefits of smoking, the nicotine, without the tar (and other chemicals)," Robinson said.