ALBANY, GA (WALB) - It's a common sight- people using electronic cigarettes.
Many of them see vaping as a safer alternative to smoking, but little is known about the long-term risks, and the industry is largely unregulated.
For millions of smokers, it's a new alternative.
The vaping craze exploded on the market a few years ago when electronic cigarettes hit the shelves.
Shaka Masters says he went from a pack a day for 20 years to using e-cigarettes.
"I no longer have the urge to pick up a cigarette and it's been over a year-and-half," said Masters
"Compared to cigarette you have over 7,000 chemicals and you have 2 or 3 chemicals in vaping," he said.
Masters is just one of the consumers who make up the $2 billion a year vaping industry.
Albany-based Good Life Vapor is one of the pioneers in the vaping boom.
"You look around and you had one store in Albany, Georgia three years ago. You now have six to seven stores right here in the Albany city limits," said store Sales Director Ryan Elsworth.
Good Life Vapor alone offers more than 90 unique liquid or "e-juice" flavors that are inhaled via a battery powered cartridge.
Some contain nicotine and some don't.
The product is manufactured at a Lee County laboratory, where CEO Jeremy Dollar turned a shoe box idea into a million dollar business.
"We currently service over 500 shops worldwide in 50 countries and all 50 states," said Dollar.
It's a busy operation. Twenty-one employees work in sales, shipping, and marketing original e-liquid products like Cake Boss, Southern Shine, and Baja Breeze.
"We try to take interesting flavor combinations and develop it to the point that when you vape you get something on the inhale, as you're holding it in, and when you exhale," said Dollar.
What's in vapor?
Along with the flavors and various levels of nicotine, a base vapor consists of Propylene Glycol or vegetable glycerin, or a combination of the two.
Both are non-toxic and used in foods.
Public health officials say their concern with e-cigarettes is the appeal to young people.
"They feel like it's a safer, when in reality it's introducing them to nicotine and it's providing them an avenue to become addicted to nicotine and therefore using traditional tobacco products," warned Remy Hutchins with Southwest Georgia Public Health.
As far as the long-term health risks of vaping, not much is known. Right now there is no federal regulation and the market is wide open. That's a concern for Dollar.
"We don't know if we need upgrades to our facilities because there are no regulations so everything in the industry is kind of at a standstill," said Dollar.
So he regulates his own product, refusing to sell to anyone under the age of 18 and his business model is a little strange coming from a CEO.
"A non-smoker coming in to buy our product, we encourage them not to vape," said Dollar. "When we claim to help people it's not to get them on something they don't need, our goal is to eliminate smoking, not to create vapors."
While Dollar says vaping is saving lives and not hurting them, the industry itself hinges on the FDA, whose proposed rules on e-cigs would require federal approval for all e-liquids on market. It's a move that many in the industry say will cripple it.
For now, the vapor debate goes on as a product designed to cut out tobacco, as it tries to avoid going up in smoke.