BRANDON — 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 United Kingdom.
"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, if thought of at all.
But to win business, they are having 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."
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Made with a battery, heating coil and computer chip, e-cigs emit a wispy cloud of vapor that can be breathed in and exhaled like smoke. The vaporized e-liquid, or "juice," is a mixture of food additives, flavorings and other chemicals, including one found in theatrical fog. Nicotine is often, but not always, added to the mix.
Boosters contend e-cigarettes are cleaner, cheaper and sweeter-tasting than old-school smokes. Though long-term research into e-cigs, which launched here in 2007, remains thin, evidence suggests they are safer than the thousands of chemicals and carcinogens in tobacco, America's leading preventable cause of death.
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. Few smokers gather outside the bar to apply their nicotine patches.
"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 United States 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 Netflix thriller House of Cards, Kevin Spacey's powerful politician produces a surprise for his moody starlit smoke break: a blue-lit e-cigarette.
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To compete, 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 just 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.
Though not legally required, many shops have set 18-and-up limits, countering criticism that e-cigs — which can charge like a cell phone, taste like candy and milkshakes, and be customized with light-up tips — are addicting a new generation to nicotine.
When Kevin Skipper, 36, tried his first e-cig, he "thought this was going to be a passing trend." Now, the 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 5,000 visitors a day.
Sipping at an e-cigarette of Miami-mixed Sunset Cavendish, the vapor of which smelled like waffles and syrup, Skipper said it was an exciting time for an industry that continued to evolve.
But Skipper, who recently quit his pack-a-day habit after 15 years, said his two young sons are excited for a different reason. "They're just happy I'm not smoking anymore."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected]