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Darth vaper or flavor savior? Bemidji businessman fighting to keep vaping lounge

If a revision to the Beltrami County tobacco ordinance is passed Northern Vapes owner Matt Bewley would be prohibited from allowing his customers to sample e-cigarette flavors prior to purchasing e-juice at his shop on Minnesota Avenue NW in Bemidji. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 4
A start-up electronic vaporizer (right) cost about $40. More sophisticated devices (left) run around $100. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer 2 / 4
Northern Vapes customer Jake Schultz, 27, of Bemidji sampled “Banana Creme Pie” on Friday, October 13, 2013 in Bemidji. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer3 / 4
Northern Vapes vaping lounge and e-cigarette store opened two months ago at 212 Minnesota Avenue NW in Bemidji. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer 4 / 4

BEMIDJI — As autumn inches closer to winter and raindrops become snowflakes, it won’t be long before we can see our breath when we exhale outdoors.

Northern Vapes owner Matt Bewley described vaping as a similar experience.

“Vaping” has been gaining popularity the past few years. What started out as a nicotine delivery system that cut out the harmful effects of smoking to a user and second-hand smoke to non-smokers has morphed into its own subculture.

“People can visit in vaping lounges like they do in coffee shops,” Bewley said.

While the new smoke-free way to kick back is praised by some, it may be short-lived in Bemidji. The Bemidji City Council and Beltrami County board are in the process of amending their tobacco ordinances to include e-cigarettes and e-devices. If one proposed change is enacted, prohibiting sampling in vaping lounges, Bewley’s customers will have a much different experience.

“Customers sample without nicotine,” Bewley said. “In Duluth, they made it so they can’t sample at all. I don’t think I’ve sold a unit yet where someone didn’t sample first.”

Bewley acknowledges there needs to be regulations in place to protect people, but no concrete studies have shown that the vapor emitted from e-cigs is harmful. All of Bewley’s products are pharmaceutical grade, he said.

Yes, nicotine can cause birth defects, reproductive harm, increased heart rate and accelerated blood pressure, as indicated by Marti Lundin, program manager for the American Lung Association, who presented to the Beltrami County Board work session on Tuesday.

Bewley said people know what they’re walking into when they come into his shop. You must be at least 18-years-old and show identification. He feels it should be up to the business owner to decide what can and cannot be allowed within their walls.

Bemidji’s first vaping lounge, Northern Vapes, opened two months ago. Bewley said business has been picking up by word of mouth advertising. Northern Vapes sells both devices and flavored “e-juice” cartridges.

Personal vaporizers, e-cigarettes or vapers are two- or three-piece devices that consist of a lithium ion battery that powers the device, a heating unit that vaporizes e-juice and a unit that holds the liquid. Two-piece e-cigs have a combined liquid cartridge and atomizer.

Different people vape for different reasons. Some enjoy the sensation of smoking without the smoke. Others are trying to wean themselves off of nicotine completely.

On Friday afternoon, one of Northern Vapes regular customers, Josh, was enjoying a toke on his lunch break in a sleek black leather chair as he looked out onto Minnesota Avenue.

“People think it’s a head shop. It’s not,” Josh said. Josh is a former smoker who switched to clove cigarettes and now is content with vaping.

A former pack-a-day cigarette smoker, Bewley tried one of the cigarette-looking devices he ordered off the Internet. Within three days, he converted from smoker to vaper.

“I’m not getting rich here,” Bewley said. “It worked for me. I just want to help people.”

A person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day spends roughly $60 a week on cigarettes. Bewley said vaping e-cigarettes costs about $15 a week.

Having a physical shop in a community provides customers with the opportunity to consult with a person who has researched the devices and is knowledgeable on the product, he said. Bewley has repaired devices for his customers and is available to make dosage recommendations based on a person’s needs. Smokers who are trying to quit cigarettes and smoke regular strength will usually start with a stronger dosage and work their way down.

Bewley said regular cigarettes contain up to 4,000 ingredients, including chemicals and carcinogens whereas the liquid he sells contains up to four: vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, nicotine and flavoring.

E-juice comes in a range of nicotine strengths as high as 24 milligrams (mg) to zero mg. People who sample in Northern Vapes are sampling a nicotine-free version of the flavor they buy.

“You’d think people would welcome it with open arms to get rid of cigarettes,” Bewley said.

The Bemidji City Council will be reading a proposed revision to its ordinance at their meeting Monday. Bewley has invited council members, county commissioners and law enforcement to Northern Vapes. He said a few council members took him up on the offer.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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