You've seen them popping up around Winnipeg over the last year with strange names such as Fat Panda, Atomic Vapor and Epic Haze.
To the uninitiated, they could be high-end head shops. To those in the know, they are one of two things — convenient, welcoming way stations for the promotion and sale of e-cigarettes and their accessories, or outposts for unregulated juice-pushers eager to make a quick buck on the backs of unfortunate smokers looking for a quick and easy way to kick the habit.
Providing everything from the latest in personal vaporizers to the most popular flavours of e-juice, these stylish little boutiques — with their comfy couches, free coffee and smiling, approachable staff — never openly market themselves as purveyors of smoking cessation products.
Quite smartly, they leave that to their hordes of fanatical customers, who are only too willing to provide testimonials raving about how happy they are to have quit smoking traditional cigarettes.
Despite a deliberate attempt to promote themselves as nothing more than distributors of recreational smoking alternatives, in reality, retailers of e-cigs bank on unsatisfied smokers walking through their doors to keep their businesses viable. Walk into any vape shop and chances are you'll witness a newbie vaper inquiring about a starter kit because they want to quit smoking.
Rarely does the discussion touch upon recreational vaping. The reason for this is simple: nobody who doesn't already smoke takes up e-cigarettes. Nobody.
If this seems a little evasive on the vendors' parts, well, that's because it is. But the blame isn't entirely theirs.
Many unknowns remain
Even as the e-cig industry rushes toward self-regulation and wider acceptance in the medical community, there are still many unknowns with regards to this new alternative.
The fact is there have not been enough long-term clinical studies to uncover the potential health dangers of using e-cigs. A quick online search will glean nothing more than competing studies that do nothing to clear the air and only pollute the debate with biased arguments intent on promoting each party's agenda.
Government bodies around the world seem confused, with some designating e-cigs as tobacco-related products. Here at home, Health Canada hasn't issued an official advisory since 2009 and for the purposes of crossing the border at least, considers them a prescription medicine and therefore illegal to bring into the country.
Conversely, supporters of e-cigs often come across as self-styled rebel martyrs ranting against "the system" and hypersensitive to real questions or concerns about the side effects of vaping.
More often than not, the vaping community seems more concerned with circling the wagons around the rallying cry, "It's better than smoking!" than actively listening to their supporters or opponents.
However, it is a decided lack of leadership from bodies such as Health Canada that is responsible for much of the confusion in the first place.
On the surface at least, governments seem less concerned with exploring the potential health benefits of e-cigs than proving they are just as harmful as traditional coffin nails, despite an overwhelming preponderance of anecdotal evidence provided by former smokers and their doctors to the contrary.
Vaping's here to stay
Vendors and e-cig supporters seem to be on the right track, though. Hopefully, their willingness to self-regulate will lend their cause the legitimacy it needs to start an open, honest dialogue with Health Canada in order to ensure vaping in all of its permutations becomes as safe and transparent as possible.
Vaping is here to stay. It's been going on in Europe for over a decade now. It's also a multimillion-dollar industry growing exponentially every day.
Yet, there are still numerous hurdles for the vaping community to address, not the least of which are standardized labelling and hygienic mixing facilities. Even before that happens, though, something much more difficult has to occur if either side is to be taken seriously by their observers.
Each side will tell you the truth about vaping as they perceive it. But here's the thing: both parties are wrong. Truth purely based on anecdotes or partisan studies is not truth at all.
The real truth is, nobody knows the real truth about vaping. All anybody really knows, whether they want to admit it openly or not, is that people use e-cigs as a smoking cessation method.
And until we can all admit that and work together for a better understanding of both the benefits and detriments of vaping, a potentially harmful, dark cloud will continue to hover over this contentious smoking alternative.
Jason Wilkins is a writer living in Winnipeg who has contributed to the comic book anthology Epic Canadiana, published by Cloudscape Comics. He currently contributes to the comic book entertainment site brokenfrontier.com as a staff writer and reviewer. He has been smoke-free since February thanks to e-cigarettes.