A Jordanian-American named Sam drips a foreign substance into a metal pipe, puts it to his lips and takes a gigantic pull.
He puffs a white cloud out his nostrils and watches it drift slowly toward the ceiling.
We are sitting on a comfy yellow couch on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. Clapton is playing on the radio. Of course Clapton is playing on the radio.
“Oh, man — oh, man,” Sam says as he leans over and passes me the pipe. “That ... is ... fantastic.”
Before you call Nancy Reagan on us, please understand that Sam Salaymeh and I are sitting inside Sam's entirely legal business, called Plumes, just north of 120th and Dodge.
We are smoking something entirely legal. We are smoking something that ever-greater numbers of Omahans believe is a healthier alternative to cigarettes, and in fact may help them quit smoking.
Honestly, Sam and I aren't smoking at all. We are “vaping,” which is a cooler way to say that we are puffing on an e-cigarette that heats liquid into vapor and gives its users a nicotine fix without the smoke, the stench or the tar found in a Marlboro.
Yours truly — an ex-Marlboro Man — has quite responsibly requested the non-nicotine version of a flavor that Sam calls “Rumpodgery.” I inhale it and encounter hints of coffee and buttery rum. I inhale it again. I put the e-cigarette down.
“It tastes clean,” I say.
Sam nods his head crazily. “That's exactly right!” he says. He makes a sweeping arm gesture to get me to look around his small store, which is packed with nearly 20 people who are buying new e-cigarettes or trying out new flavors.
“That is why they are here.”
This much is true: Sam has built this place, and they have come. On this lazy Tuesday afternoon, perhaps 100 people pull into this west Omaha strip mall and enter Plumes. They sit on the couches and pick from one of 132 flavors of vapor, which they call juice. They vape juices called Top Banana and Pound Cake and Coffee Shop and Honey Dew.
It is comfortable here, a little like your best friend's basement, or a cozy neighborhood bar that doesn't happen to serve booze. And so they linger inside Plumes and tell each other stories, powerful stories, about smoking, and about not smoking, and about how this thing — this vaping — might just save them.
“It's been 25 days since my last cigarette,” says Sheila Arney, a 53-year-old Elkhorn small-business owner and a lifelong smoker who walks in wearing a black jogging suit. “Listen, I know that this is still nicotine, and nicotine is a drug, but I can breathe for the first time since I can remember.”
Sheila has tried nicotine patches, and tapering off of cigarettes, and quitting cold turkey, and a powerful prescription drug called Chantix. But the patches gave her the shakes, and the side effects of Chantix made her horribly depressed, and the tapering off didn't work, and cold turkey didn't, either.
One night in March she was at a Waterloo bar called the Dog House Saloon. The bartender handed her an e-cigarette. Try this, he said. She came to Plumes, bought her first e-cigarette, started vaping and now, 25 days later, she is evangelizing with the zeal of the newly converted.
“With cigarettes you get the taste, which I never liked, the hangover, the coughing, the phlegm, the wheezing. Now food tastes completely different. I feel completely different.”
Sheila and every other customer I talk to make the same argument for vaping: It's like smoking but without the tar and the various other substances found in cigarettes.
But doctors, scientists and the Food and Drug Administration aren't so sure. University of California researchers recently tested e-cigarette aerosols (or “juices”) and found traces of silver, iron, aluminum, tin, chromium and nickel, many of which can contribute to respiratory disease. The FDA's only previous study — a study that was widely derided by the e-cigarette industry — found small levels of diethylene glycol in some e-cigarette cartridges. That's a chemical also found in antifreeze.
The American Cancer Society, alarmed that e-cigarette use has more than doubled since 2010, is now pushing the federal government to do long-term testing and also regulate e-cigarettes.
And even if e-cigarettes are safer than actual cigarettes, where is the proof that they are actually less addictive?
I found plenty of people who had switched completely from smoking to vaping and said they were in the process of ratcheting down the amount of nicotine they took in while vaping. (Plumes mixes each flavor with a different level of nicotine, according to the customer's wishes.)
But I didn't find anyone who had actually quit nicotine altogether.
Sam, an affable and gregarious type, says he has a few customers who now vape with the nicotine-free version that I tried. But he doesn't coach anyone on how to quit smoking using an e-cigarette, he says.
He also doesn't talk to his customers about the health benefits, real or perceived, of vaping.
“I'm an honest man,” he says. “I tell them 'I'm not qualified to answer your questions. Do your own homework.'”
I did an afternoon's worth of homework, and I get the overwhelming sense that Sam has hit the jackpot. Two years ago he was a new e-cigarette user himself, one who traded a two-pack-a-day habit for a vaping habit he found much less objectionable.
“You couldn't pay me to smoke a cigarette now,” he says.
Last year at this time he was buying juices, mixing them together and reselling them to three or four friends out of his living room.
Today, and nearly every day, business is brisk at Plumes, which he opened in late 2012. Sam is now expanding to the empty bay next door, a move that will nearly triple his current 800-square-foot space. He's up to nine employees now, and he's hiring.
Now Sam walks into the hardware store, and he recognizes customers. He walks around Omaha, and he sees people vaping outside of office buildings and bars.
And here's the truth about what he's created: It feels like a community, more of a community than any place that sells cigarettes.
I find myself half-hoping that e-cigarettes prove to be safe, so that Sheila and Brian and Bill and Donna and all the other people I meet can continue to come here and debate the relative merits of different flavors and swap stories and laugh.
“You give people something good, you help them out, you walk them through it and they come back, and they bring their friends,” Sam says.
He stops to take another giant pull off his pipe. He blows another enormous cloud of vapor toward the ceiling and smiles.
“It's as simple as that.”
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