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He built a vape company because he wanted to help smokers quit. Health experts think that’s a really bad idea

Chasing clouds

Paul Brinkmann Aug 29, 2018 1:00 AM

At first glance, Fast Eddie's Vape Shop and Lounge looks like a typical South Orlando bar. There are pool tables and chairs, beer taps and wine bottles, a haze in the air.

Then you see it.

A beach-ball-sized cloud of foggy, white vapor emerging from the mouth of a middle-aged woman on a couch. The bartender blows another billow, bigger and denser. The air gets thicker with a syrupy smell like Froot Loops cereal. No cigarettes allowed.

This is Matt Kleizo's world, which he says is now a $10 million company. Named after his 6-year-old son, Eddie, the vape shop is a store, a hangout and a forum for vaping competitions, in which the biggest and thickest cloud wins an award.

Kleizo, 47, a former cigarette smoker, currently employs about 40 people at his lounge and distribution business. Fast Eddie's also designs and manufactures vape mods – handheld electronic devices that produce vapor in larger volume than a simple e-cigarette. Kleizo struck gold by launching his vape company in 2014 and found a niche in high-end mods that now sell around the world, fetching up to $425.

"I started my business to help people quit smoking, not to start vaping," Kleizo says. "I would discourage people from starting to vape unless they are smokers. I say it all the time: Why start if you don't smoke?"

But he's landed smack in the middle of a battle – both statewide and national – over the public perception of vaping.

Five years ago, Kleizo was a CrossFit trainer who had just gone through what he describes as a bitter divorce. He'd gotten custody of Eddie, but he lost a lot in court, and emerged with just "three bags of clothes and a spatula," he says.

During the divorce, he started smoking. As a former trainer, he was embarrassed to admit his habit, and he tried to hide it. His girlfriend suggested vaping instead.

"I remember saying, 'That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard,'" Kleizo says. He'd heard mixed reviews about e-cigs when they were first introduced, and it seemed hard to believe anything could replace smoking.

Photo by Jen Cray
Matt Kleizo holds one of his mods at his store, Fast Eddie’s

"But I tried it, and I never picked up another cigarette again," Kleizo says. For him, the act of inhaling vapor with nicotine was close enough to smoking to make him abandon cigarettes, and he felt it was better for his health and image. Vaping, he learned, included a culture of former smokers who like to hang out, sans smokes – much like former alcoholics who gather at coffee shops.

Kleizo decided to invest in 2013. He'd worked as a national sales manager at Staples, and he used that experience to launch Fast Eddie's.

His timing was perfect. E-cigs were exploded in popularity in 2014, both among adults and teenagers. That year's National Youth Tobacco Survey said e-cig use among high-schoolers nearly tripled, from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, rising from approximately 660,000 to 2 million students. E-cigarettes became the most commonly used tobacco product among youth, surpassing conventional cigarettes.

Kleizo believes there's a lot of negative propaganda in the U.S. regarding vaping. He knows the tobacco giants also own e-cig companies now, but he believes money from tobacco excise taxes and settlement funds means that even some state governments are reluctant to say goodbye to cigarettes completely.

A few states and cities are levying special taxes against e-cigarettes. According to the nonprofit Tax Foundation, as of January 2018, eight states and the District of Columbia levy a statewide excise tax on vape products, and three states are home to localities that have started to apply excise taxes to the products. The Foundation says Minnesota has the highest tax rate at 95 percent, followed by California at 65.08 percent. Chicago levies the highest per unit tax, 80 cents, plus 55 cents per milliliter of vape juice sold.

Fast Eddie's has allowed Kleizo to provide for his sons Brandon, 13, JR, 8, and Eddie. Eddie is fast on his feet, thus the name of the business.

The business has also given them a smoke-free home and father.

"I started this when Eddie was a baby just learning to walk," Kleizo says. "I did this for him."

But the nascent empire he's built could soon find itself under regulators' microscope.

Photo by Jen Cray

This spring, the Food and Drug Administration launched a crackdown on retailers of the most popular vape pens, made by industry giant Juul, as well as a plan to study a ban on all flavored tobacco or vaping products. Furor over the marketing of e-cigarettes also sparked a new chapter in the Truth Initiative's war on smoking and nicotine products.

The Truth Initiative was established as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between major U.S. tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states. Truth has called for greater regulation of all electronic cigarettes and vaping devices and has asked the FDA to require Juul and other companies to "reduce youth appeal, access and use," noting that some companies have begun "marketing their products to look like candy or other kid-friendly food items, such as Reddi-wip, Nilla Wafers and Warheads candy."

Juul's website says the company's mission is "to eliminate cigarettes" and that its product is intended for adult smokers who want to switch from combustible cigarettes, yet the Juul is so massively trendy among teens that it's been verbed ("Juuling"). National media from NPR to the New York Times have noticed and churned out countless hand-wringing longforms in the past six months.

Kleizo says he agrees with the American Lung Association, the Truth Initiative and Florida's Tobacco Coalition on one thing – vaping is not for kids. But there are disturbing trends that indicate young people are being targeted in marketing efforts by Juul or smaller companies.

Unlike most vape mods, the e-cigarette sold by Juul is designed to be discreet, not to emit a big cloud of vapor – which Kleizo and others say helps kids to hide their use of it. (Fast Eddie's does sell Juul, though Kleizo says he doesn't like the product – but his customers expect to find it in a vaping store.)

Nicotine isn't necessarily included in all vape liquids – some products omit it altogether, or allow the user to determine the amount of nicotine in the vape juice. But until this summer, Juul only offered what is considered a "full-strength" nicotine juice, containing 5 percent nicotine. At that rate one small Juul pod contained about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. Juul says each pod has "200 puffs," which is about the equivalent of a standard pack of 20 cigarettes. On July 12 this summer, Juul announced that it would release pods with slightly less nicotine at 3 percent.

Erika Sward, national assistant vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, says that teens who get hooked on nicotine may eventually start smoking cigarettes, simply because cigarettes are a cheaper and more widely available means of satisfying the nicotine urge.

Photo by Jen Cray

The 2017 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey found that kids and teens are using e-cigs more than any other tobacco product. Florida high school students used e-cigs at nearly four times the rate of conventional cigarettes, and at least one in three reported trying an e-cig.

Surprisingly, the American Cancer Society has ramped up its support for vaping as a smoking cessation tool this year, declaring in a June health statement that "although many [electronic devices] deliver nicotine, flavor additives, and other chemicals, they do not burn tobacco, a process that yields an estimated 7,000 chemicals, including at least 70 carcinogens."

While that may be true, the American Lung Association says it is more worried about the long-term effects of vaping, the fact that it has not been heavily regulated and the possibility that it may be a gateway to smoking for young people. The ALA still sticks to a strict message of encouraging only approved smoking cessation products like nicotine patches or Chantix to aid efforts to quit.

"Although the tobacco industry markets e-cigarettes as a tool to help adult smokers quit smoking, e-cigarette use actually only marginally increases the number of adult cigarette smokers who are able to successfully quit," says Samir Soneji, the principal investigator on a recent report from Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine that adds empirical heft to the ALA's concerns. "On the other hand, e-cigarettes may facilitate cigarette smoking initiation and confer substantial harm to adolescents and young adults once they are introduced to nicotine."

Besides nicotine, the ALA is concerned about the other elements that have been found in e-cigs. For a while, vaping juice contained diacetyl, which some have claimed can cause a bronchitis-like condition known as popcorn lung (because it can also be caused by inhaling the chemicals found in microwave popcorn flavoring). But Kleizo points out that the big players in the industry eliminated that problem as soon as it was identified.

Still, Sward says, the effects of inhaling the other chemicals in vape juice are unknown. The two biggest ingredients are glycerin, which is also used in stage production to make fog, and propylene glycol, which supports the flavor.

"Ingesting those two substances is OK," Sward says. "But the effect of inhaling them, especially together and over time, is unknown altogether."

At the same time, states are grappling with new vaping regulations. Many municipalities aren't waiting around for FDA regulation – for instance, in June, San Francisco voters decisively voted in a ban on fruity- or candy-flavored vape juices, some of which are sold under names like "lollipop," "chicken and waffles" and "unicorn milk."

This fall, voters in Florida will be asked to approve Amendment 9, a statewide ban on vaping indoors, as part of a package of new constitutional amendments. The ballot measure would simply add "vapor generating electronic devices" to the existing ban on smoking tobacco indoors. Like the existing smoking ban, the new restrictions would not apply to retail tobacco shops, vapor-generating electronic device retailers, designated smoking guest rooms at hotels and other public lodging establishments, or stand-alone bars.

But because the Constitution Revision Commission bundled several of the proposed amendments – for instance, the proposed vaping ban is bundled with a proposal to ban offshore drilling and fracking in one yes-or-no question – a pair of ex-public officials, former Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead and former Florida Elections Commissioner Robert Barnas, have sued the state to toss them out. They argue that six of the ballot questions will illegally require voters to "pay a price" for one thing if they want the other.

Photo by Jen Cray

As of Aug. 28, Amendment 9 was still subject of the broader lawsuit, which has been transferred to a Tallahassee circuit court. Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is arguing that bundling ballot items for constitutional amendments is only off-limits for citizen initiatives, not for items that already had a public hearing with the state's Constitution Revision Commission.

Like shipwreck survivors, ex-smokers-turned-vapers stick together. Many can't stand the smell of cigarette smoke anymore or don't want to be tempted by it.

"It's much more than just blowing the big cloud," says Levi Crouch, 25, who recently moved to Orlando and started working for Kleizo. "You meet up with an amazing group of people. Everybody loves each other because we have the same goal and the same reason for being there. It's a goal to help each other."

Photo by Jen Cray

Crouch started smoking in high school. Not long after graduating, a friend started vaping, so he decided to try it too.

"I noticed I wasn't breathing as well, couldn't run as well, so I decided to try vaping," Crouch says. "I didn't like the first one I tried, but I went to a vape shop where I lived in Northern Virginia and they recommended a better product. I haven't had a cigarette since. I felt better in the first few months. I was able to run up a flight of stairs again."

Crouch became a regular at vape shop events, and soon he started joining cloud competitions. He says he won $35,000 in prizes in 2015. Now in Orlando, Crouch is sponsored by Fast Eddie's, which holds its own competitions, complete with a wall mural that marks out a 15-foot length to help measure the clouds.

"It's just like a NASCAR driver. I wear a jersey that says 'Fast Eddie's.' I represent them," Crouch says.

Crouch says he doesn't ever want to be "that guy" – the vaper who blows a big cloud at a restaurant or near an unsuspecting passerby. He refuses to vape in any public place where smoking is banned.

"It's definitely a huge community, millions of people who all wanted to quit smoking cigarettes and found a way to do that without all the chemicals," he says.

He now helps Kleizo develop juice brands – including Taffy Splash, which comes in blue raspberry or strawberry flavor.

Like many former smokers, Crouch keeps a small amount of nicotine in his juice. He says he vapes most of the day, but not obsessively – not in the middle of the night, after eating or in the bathroom.

Given the hazy health facts and changing regulations, people who vape for the first time often have a lot of questions, says Jeremy Wilburn, who works for Kleizo at Fast Eddie's.

He helps sell dozens of styles of vape mods, e-cigarettes, juice, battery chargers and other accessories. "I was a smoker and I had tried to quit," Wilburn says. "I just thought vaping was more interesting."

But he was bewildered by the options. He tried an e-cigarette and didn't like it. He found answers and a higher-quality local product at Fast Eddie's.

"It's definitely a learning curve when you start. Now I help people avoid the same issues I encountered," he says.

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