It’s NOT smoking, and e-cigarette users are juiced to spread the word.

Inside DownEast Vapes in Lewiston, on the other side of a floating mist that smells vaguely of cinnamon, the wise and convivial Steve Negm tends to his flock.

He’s only been operating the shop for a few months now, but his group is formidable. On a Saturday afternoon, the Dirty Lew Vape Crew fills the space – a dozen-plus souls sharing tips, gossiping or challenging each other to frequent cloud contests.

DownEast Vapes is half support group and half hobby hangout. Here are more than a dozen vapers, most of whom have quit smoking simply by switching to a less toxic and far more exciting pastime.

Welcome to the world of vapor.

“I was a very heavy smoker,” says Negm, who, at 54, had been smoking for 35 years. “I was always trying to quit. I tried everything out there. Then this came on the market. I tried it and I liked it, even though the technology wasn’t that good back then. It worked. I threw my cigarettes away and just started vaping all the time. I vape zero nicotine now.”

Zero nicotine meaning Steve is vaping just flavored “juice” now. No nicotine, no addictive substances at all.


The story is repeated over and over as I move through the room. Hardcore smokers talk about giving up the habit with little to no agony after just a few days – or just a few hours in a few cases.

It’s impressive, the kind of phenomenon that causes many to raise their eyebrows and say, after considerable deliberation: What the hell is a vape?

A fast definition: “Vaping utilizes a propylene glycol- or vegetable glycerin-based liquid known as ‘juice,’ mixed with small amounts of nicotine if desired and food-grade flavoring. That gets vaporized by a small battery-powered heater. The vapor created is inhaled and exhaled much like cigarette smoke, hence the term ‘vaping’ as opposed to ‘smoking.'”

Users who choose to vape with nicotine can get it at various levels, from high – say, 2.4 percent – to almost nothing.

The tools and tricks of vape are incredibly diverse, with personalized heating coils (to vaporize the juice), exotic tanks (to hold the juice) and a near endless array of mods (electronic cigarettes) and battery styles. The jargon itself can seem esoteric to a newbie, with its clearomizers, atomizers, cartomizers and the weird world of sub-ohm. (See glossary.)

Not to mention the sheer number of flavors, which make the choices at a gelato shop seem austere.


But, as the seasoned users are quick to point out, vaping can also be simple to the point of mindless. Pick up a vape pen — an e-cigarette — for under $10 and fill the tank with $5 juice sold almost everywhere. Or go nuts and spend a few hundred bucks on something fancy with something tasty in the tank.

“You can spend as much money or as little money as you want,” says Greg Bickel, a 49-year-old puffing on a root beer float juice from an IB3 box mod. “The possibilities are endless.”

No matter how you vape, enthusiasts say there’s no easier way to kick the smoking habit.

Life-changing moment

“The changes in my life have been extreme,” Negm tells me. “I feel so much better. I don’t wheeze, I don’t cough ever. I don’t stink, I don’t have that yellow hue on my hands, my fingers or my clothes. I don’t get buildup on the windows. I don’t get any of that. I can’t even tell you how much it has improved my life.”

I pondered this thought with a puff of apple-flavored juice, a smooth white cloud rolling sexily from my lips before vanishing a few seconds later.


Negm is the ultimate ambassador of vaping. He’s a man who was desperate to quit cigarettes. His wife and daughter despised his habit. He was going out to his garage to smoke, like a junkie, and then coming back inside reeking of tobacco and tar.

Now four years smoke-free, Negm passes along the things that he has learned about vape, setting his customers up with gear and custom-flavored juices, and getting them on a program to wean them off nicotine. For the first couple months, he was tracking the number of people he helped quit smoking.

“I stopped counting,” Negm says, “at 20.”

Added to Negm’s inventory is also a bit of philosophy – touches of psychology that help folks make the leap from tobacco to vape and, if they choose, to nothing at all.

“You have a lot of flavor options,” Negm says. “I recommend to people, when they want to quit smoking, get away from the tobacco flavors. Let’s just start new. Desserts or fruits . . . things that aren’t tobacco flavored. You’re still getting the smoking thing, but you’re eliminating a lot of the carcinogens. You’re eliminating a lot of things. Let’s just change your way of thinking. And it works.”

The proof is all around us.


“When Steve talks about feeling so much better,” says AAron Britto, “I can totally back him up.”

Britto is just 21 years old, but he had the smoking habits of an older man. He started at 11, and by the time he found vape he was puffing a pack or more of cigarettes a day. His girlfriend told him about DownEast Vapes. Disgusted with his own smoking habit, Britto stopped in to look around.

“I made it a point to stop in and explore it,” Britto says. “I told Steve exactly what I wanted and he set me up with my first rig, the Copper Penny Mod. I fell in love. I had half a pack of cigarettes that day. I went to work and gave them all away and I haven’t picked up a cigarette since. That was two-and-a-half, maybe three months ago.”

Like the others, Britto will tell you all about the benefits of replacing cigarettes with vape. It happened almost immediately once he put away the cigs for good.

“I felt pretty bad for about a week,” Britto says. “It was like a really bad chest cold. Then I got over it and I felt like a million bucks. No more waking up hacking up a lung, no more wheezing, no more coughing, I can run up and down steps with no problem. I’ve been trying to push it on my mom. I was smoking more than she was. If I can quit, she can quit.”

Along comes Big Mike Houghton, a 36-year-old truck driver who’s rocking a Steel Punk Slug clone with an Aspire Atlantis tank. He’s puffing King’s Barrel Blacksmith and talking about his transformation. It started when his roommate, Brandon Burgess, loaned Big Mike some gear.


“He let me borrow a mod and a tank just because I wanted to try it before I spent a lot of money on one,” Houghton says. “I borrowed it at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and vaped the rest of the evening. The next morning, I had one last cigarette because I thought that I was going to need it. I lit it up, took three drags and I couldn’t handle it. It was gross. I’ve been vaping ever since.”

Like so many others in the world of vape, Houghton despised the smoking habit, even when he was deep into it. Like others, breaking the spell of smoke seemed near impossible. Instead, it turned out to be ridiculously easy.

“In a matter of hours,” he says, “I quit smoking.”

Just like a cigarette, minus the ashtray smell

Somebody hands me a vape with a juice that Negm concocts himself. I take a long puff. It tastes of chocolate, but there is also a fruity undertone.

“Steve’s chocolate-covered strawberries,” says Britto, “taste like chocolate-covered strawberries. His mountain berry tastes like a mouthful of Skittles. He knows what he’s doing.”


I take another puff. Because there is a small amount of nicotine in this particular batch, it feels exactly like a pull from a cigarette. That’s the nicotine fix that smokers crave. But there is also something to be said about the almost ornate cloud that floats from my mouth, a cloud that doesn’t stink like cigarette smoke, but which satisfies that more visual craving.

Britto understands. That cloud is what he found missing from other smoking alternatives like gum or Nicotrol inhalers, which he tried before discovering vape

“I’d taste it and I’d feel the nicotine, but when I exhaled there was nothing there, which drove me nuts,” Britto says. “It made me want a drag of a real cigarette so I could see what I was exhaling. It’s the visual.”

To emphasize this, Britto blows a massive cloud, one which is admired by others hanging around in the shop. Moments later, a cloud contest breaks out. In the vape world, clouds are important. Some folks will spend extra money on mods and on juice to get the biggest ones possible.

“I’ve always said I wanted something that can blow clouds,” Britto says. “When it came to quitting, it was never the (lack of) nicotine that drove me nuts, it was the fixation of smoking.”

That’s the funny thing about vaping. People who quit smoking cigarettes end up saving thick wads of cash – roughly $200 a month for an average smoker. And that money could be pocketed, if one wanted to stick with a cheap $10 vape pen and some convenience-store juice.


The hardcore vapers don’t tend to go that route. They have multitudes of mods and tanks and coils, and they have bottles of juices by the dozens — a different flavor for every mood.

“It’s something I started to save money on,” says Matt Decatur, “but then you get hooked into the hobby and it doesn’t really save you any.”

There is wide agreement on this. Some of these characters spend a lot of their disposable income on vape and vape accessories. The difference, they insist, is that it’s a hobby they enjoy. The experiment with coil styles, try out different flavors and modify their batteries and tanks in a variety of ways.

“You can get the exact experience that you want out of it,” says Brandon Ogburn of Sabattus.

Ogburn’s wife suffers with COPD. Back when he was smoking cigarettes, the reek of smoke would aggravate her condition, even as Ogburn took great pains to go outside for his smokes.

“Even the smell of it on my clothes would make her start coughing,” Ogburn says. “At that point, I said, OK, that’s it.”


One massive benefit of vape, users will tell you, is that it can be done in the house, the car – anywhere, really – without causing offense to others. The vapor vanishes very quickly and leaves no foul aroma behind. In fact, there is something pleasing about the scent. Depending, of course, on the flavor being puffed.

“I don’t smell like an ashtray,” Ogburn says. “Instead I smell like coconut or brown sugar.”

Something about that particular thought makes Ogburn smile between puffs.

“I’ve got a cinnamon graham cracker juice that Steve makes,” he says. “My wife got home one day, took a whiff and asked me, ‘Have you been baking cookies?'”

But is it healthy?

The medical community is still trying to sort out the nature of vape. There have been reports released that suggest that inhaling vaporized juice is not without its hazards.


Almost everyone agrees on one thing, however. If there are dangers associated with vape, they pale in comparison with the toxic stew that comes with sucking burning tobacco into one’s lungs.

“Smoking anything is not good for you,” says Negm. “But of the two, this is by far the lesser of those evils.”

Vape has been an almost underground activity for several years now. Most people don’t know a thing about it, and that’s not entirely an accident. First of all, you must be at least 18 years old to buy. And, by and large, people who vape take pains to not draw attention to their habit. In public places, discretion is advised.

“I tell everybody, if you’re going out in public with it, be respectful of the people around you,” Negm says. “If there are kids around, you know what? These people don’t smoke and don’t know anything about this. Let’s not blow a huge cloud in their face. We’ve got a better way of smoking here, let’s not ruin it.”

Negm also uses child safety caps on his juice bottles, not, he says, because the law demands it but because it’s a good idea to keep kids away from the concentrated liquids.

“If you have a child,” he says, “common sense tells you you don’t leave this bottle around. We have child safety caps just in case.”


The somewhat underground nature of today’s vaping world belies the pastime’s active social aspect. The Dirty Lew Vape Crew, in addition to its weekly hangouts, maintains a lively and interactive Facebook page.

“It’s brought so many people together,” says Britto. “People exchanging stories, exchanging strategies, exchanging tips and tricks. Every day, I’m learning something new about it. People you wouldn’t expect are vaping.”

Once you discover vaping, it’s hard to understand how you missed it in the first place. Poke around YouTube and you will find thousands of channels dedicated to the hobby – mod reviews, mostly. On the World Wide Web at large, vape forums are everywhere you turn, with lively discussions all day and all night about flavors, mods . . . the whole vaping gestalt.

Users also keep up to date on scientific studies that are released almost daily. They know that new laws and new regulations could come along at any time to disrupt their chosen lifestyle: California, which tends to embrace its reputation as a nanny state, recently launched an informational campaign to warn residents of the potential dangers.

According to a report issued by the California Department of Public Health in January, the juice in electronic cigarettes contains at least 10 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. The report also says accidental exposure to the liquids has prompted increased calls to poison control centers nationally, climbing from one a month in 2010 to 215 a month in 2014.

An analysis published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that the exposure to formaldehyde from e-cigarettes, based on similar chronic use of tobacco, could be five to 15 times higher than from smoking cigarettes.


The Federal Drug Administration is studying the effects and possible hazards of vaping, as is the medical community. Also interested are a few behemoth industries that have been directly impacted by the explosive popularity of vape.

“Big Brother Nicotine is getting mad about this,” Britto says. “They’re losing money. They just lost $120 a month from me alone, and it’s happening all over the world.”

Interest heating up in L-A

While the establishment struggles to catch up, the growing popularity of vaping is evident. DownEast Vapes isn’t the only game in L-A. At the other end of Lisbon Street, for instance, Lewiston businessman Ming Nguyen has set up Escape Vape, a shop tucked in among the eateries, law offices and Somali shops.

There, new vapers and veterans alike come in, sit in a bar-style area and try out vaping equipment and juices using their own devices or ones supplied by the store. Behind glass cases are the tools of the hobby in all their futuristic grandeur.

In Sabattus, a shop called E-LIT has emerged in the mini-mall on Sabattus Road. Like similar shops, E-LIT has already developed its own following of vapers who share notes and reviews on the store’s Facebook page.


At Discount Smoke Shop at Russell and Sabattus street in Lewiston, vapes gleam on the shelves of a store that offers a variety of pipes and smoke. The displays there are almost dizzying, with dozens of vapes for sale and juices everywhere you look. The store sees all-day traffic by veteran vapers and newbies alike.

“But does it really feel like a cigarette?” one man asked another while I was in there.

“Exactly like it. Same throat hit, same visual experience.”

The first man remained skeptical. A few seconds later, the shopkeeper eased a disposable tip onto a tank and let the fellow take his first puff. He walked out of there with a new battery, a new tank, three bottles of juice and some high hopes of breaking a lifelong habit.

Not to mention, you know. A little style.

There’s just something cool about vapor, users say. Something more classy about the exotic hookah-style apparatus than a lowly cigarette. Something more fun. In many ways, the vape community bears similarity to groups of smartphone enthusiasts, the so-called geeks who converge in online forums to discuss new and exciting ways to tinker with the technology.


“The hobby aspect of it is awesome,” says Bickel, “especially if you like to work with your hands. I’m a tinkerer. I like to tinker. The people who don’t want to do that, they don’t have to.”

Vape terminology

Mod: A term commonly used to describe an electronic cigarette that uses a removable battery. Mod can also mean to modify an existing product.

Coil: The component that heats the e-liquid or juice, creating vapor. Coils come in numerous styles.

Tank: A generic term for the part of a vape (or e-cig or mod) that holds the juice. Sometimes called an “atomizer.”

Cartomizer:   A contraction of cartridge and atomizer, this houses both the e-liquid and the heating element. Most e-cigarettes use cartomizers.

Clearomizer: A term to describe a clear or transparent cartomizer, usually consisting of a tube, coil and drip tip.


PG: Propylene glycol, commonly the primary ingredient in vape juice, it readily vaporizes and is commonly believed to produce good flavor and throat hit, but less vapor than vegetable glycerine.

VG: Vegetable glycerine. This can also be used as the main liquid component in juice. VG is a thicker liquid that produces more vapor, but less flavor and throat hit than PG.

Sub-ohm vaping: A controversial practice of trying to coax mega clouds of vapor by using a heating coil setup that produces next to no electrical resistance – less than 1 ohm.

More terminology can be found in the vape glossary here:

What is vape?

Battling vape misconceptions:

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