T.D. Bowen quit his insurance-agent job and cashed in his 401(k) to launch Moon Mountain Vapor, a custom-built laboratory for mixing the flavorful nicotine cocktails heated into vapor by e-cigarettes.
It was a big risk on a budding market, he said, and "the scariest time of my life." But less than a year later, his lab is brewing thousands of bottles of "e-liquid" a month, with names like "Earth is a Blueberry" and "Space Suit Surprise," for retailers in 42 states, Malaysia, France and the U.K.
"Every day is overwhelming," said Bowen, 35, from his stainless-steel mixing station in a suburban Brandon shopping center. "Some nights I can't sleep because there's so much going on. It's that type of industry."
Bowen is one of a growing number of strip-mall chemists and small-business upstarts putting Tampa Bay on the map of America's $1.5 billion e-cigarette industry. He's also a "platinum sponsor" of this weekend's Vaping Convention Circuit, the first convention here dedicated to the tiny nicotine-misting machines.
With U.S. tobacco use fizzling and corner stores like CVS yanking cigarettes from shelves, local e-cig pioneers say they are finally winning legitimacy for a device derided as a smokers' knockoff or stoners' toy.
But to win business, they have to go toe-to-toe with Big Tobacco, which has already burnt hundreds of millions in cash building their own national e-cigarette brands.
That's not intimidating to Rob Burton, who left British American Tobacco, the world's second-largest tobacco multinational, to lead corporate and regulatory affairs for White Cloud Electronic Cigarettes in Tarpon Springs.
The bigs "are creating a lot of awareness for products — and companies — like ours," said Burton, whose 80-employee company earned $15 million in revenue last year, with more than 1,000 orders a day worldwide. "There's a lot of market still to play for."
E-cigs can be sold without pricey tobacco taxes, legally mailed and "lit up" indoors without ash or secondhand smoke. For smokers wanting to quit, they satisfy nicotine cravings and hand-to-mouth rituals, as well as scratch a social itch.
"I was a smoker for 36 years, and I'd tried every way to Sunday to quit. I guess I was a wuss," said Fred Jeffery, who owns Blue Lab Vapors, a Largo e-liquid lab. "The day I tried e-cigs, I threw away my cigarettes. I haven't looked back since."
E-cigarette sellers make just a penny for every dollar spent on America's $100 billion tobacco empire, but could overrun traditional cigarettes in the U.S. by 2023, Bloomberg Industries projections show. The market is dominated by a triad of e-cig firms — blu, LOGIC and NJOY — which account for three quarters of all convenience-store sales.
Already savaged by cigarettes' rising taxes, health crises, smoking bans and social stigmas, Big Tobacco is fighting back. America's top three tobacco giants have either bought e-cig upstarts (like Miami-based Green Smoke this month, for $110 million) or launched their own e-cig lines, such as Vuse and MarkTen.
Untouched by a 1971 cigarette-ad ban, e-cigs have blitzed across TV through Super Bowl commercials, celebrity cameos and slogans like "a perfect puff every time." In the thriller House of Cards, Kevin Spacey's powerful politician produces a surprise for his starlit smoke break: a blue-lit e-cigarette.
Tampa Bay e-cig upstarts have taken a page from the farmer's market playbook, offering local mixes they say meet higher standards than most Chinese-made juice.
They have also diversified beyond stocking flimsy "cigalike" clones. White Cloud sells e-cig gift cards, car chargers and cases in synthetic leather, buffalo hide and crocodile skin.
Blue Lab, which runs its own vape-friendly coffee house and mobile app, boasts an e-liquid "mixing studio" that riffs off drinks ("Earl Grey Tea," "Blueberry Mojito"), foods ("Peppermint Patty," "Wedding Cake") and custom blends ("Darth Vapor," a "sinister" mix of cherry and dark chocolate).
If Florida votes to legalize medical marijuana in November, e-cig shops could further benefit from the market for vaporizing weed. But local upstarts face broader challenges, too, including upcoming Food and Drug Administration regulations and resistance from county politicos and employers across the state.
Kevin Skipper, 36, organizer of this weekend's Tampa Convention Center gathering says it could be the largest of its kind since last summer's Vapestock on Indian Rocks Beach, attracting up to 5,000 visitors a day.