Name: Joe Barhoumi
Job: Owner, Green Forest Vapor Shop at 106 E. Main St. in Belleville (618-210-4500)
Outlook: "Our goal as a business and really our goal as an industry is to help people switch. We're not trying to start new people into it. Our goal is to get people away from tobacco."
Joe Barhoumi want to help smokers get their fix with tobacco-less cigarettes. Last month, he opened a smokeless cigarette shop in downtown Belleville, where consumers can find electronic cigarettes, often referred to as e-cigarettes or e-cigs. These cigarettes do not contain tobacco, but a mechanism that heats up liquid nicotine and turns into a vapor that smokers inhale and exhale. The high-tech smokes offer smokers an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes and are an option that Barhoumi thinks can help some to gradually kick the habit. He recently invited business writer Will Buss to his store to talk about it:
Why did you get into this business?
"I always wanted to open a business on my own. There was a need. My dad was in business for most of his life. I kind of always wanted to go that route with my life as well. That's kind of how I got into it all. Essentially when I went into this business, my dad passed away from lung cancer a couple years back, right around the same time my son was born. So I looked for an alternative for myself because I smoked for four years and I saw what the outcome is, and I said I don't want my son to go through that same thing. I was looking online for different things. I'd heard of e-cigs. I wasn't quite sure what they were and going online just wasn't very helpful as far as knowing what you want and being able to test things out. And I realized what a need this is in the area."
What had you done before opening your store?
"I've been in retail for the last 12 years. My whole career has been in retail sales. I've sold cars for the Auffenberg Dealer Group in O'Fallon and Belleville. I was a retail manager for Verizon Wireless for a couple of years. Retail is really what I grew up in."
How did you find the product that you sell at your shop?
"I found an e-cig online. I ordered it, I used it for a month or two. Eventually, something else came out, like Blu E-Cigarettes came out. I tried those, but they were not as effective. There were a couple of trial-and-error things that I did and they just didn't work out for me. I searched the Internet again and just tried to find somewhere I could go locally, but I really couldn't find anything other than a couple of places in St. Louis. I went out and visited a couple of them and I found something that I actually liked and I found some flavors that I liked."
Why did you select the product you sell?
"That's a good question, and the best way to put it is they're more powerful. Basically, what they call the 'juice' is basically the liquid nicotine solution and flavoring that is used in all e-cigs. Wherever else you get it, whether online or you get them from the gas station or wherever, it's not very flavorable and it's not as powerful. It doesn't feel like a cigarette in your throat. We import them and they are powerful enough to make it feel like a cigarette. And we mix all of our own juice in-house, which means we control how much flavoring you get."
What kind of flavors?
"We have general tobacco flavors. If you are smoking Marlboro reds or something like that, that is probably what you are probably going to go for. We have menthol flavors and we have an assortment of other flavors. Some people come to me and say 'I want to stop smoking. I don't want to taste the cigarette anymore,' but they associate that flavoring of cigarettes with smoking a cigarette. So we go to something different, like blueberry or raspberry or something like that. They enjoy it, which helps them stick to it. The main thing is they have forgotten all about cigarettes."
How many flavors do you carry?
"We have 37 right now. We look to add probably five or six a month for the next 12 months."
So is this a healthier alternative?
"That's another good question. There are some studies out there that basically are right on the money and some that have half-truths. I can't tell you that this is the best thing for you, but as opposed to smoking a cigarette every hour of their lives, it's got to be better. Essentially what our customers are going from is 4,000 carcinogens in a single cigarette with carbon monoxide and nicotine. What you're getting with us is just the nicotine. So you're leaving all of the other carcinogens out, from what I've researched and what I've read."
What is the difference between inhaling smoke and inhaling vapor?
"If you were to go to a bonfire and breathe in all of the smoke from a bonfire for about five minutes, it wouldn't be very good for you. If you boil some water and breathe in that vapor, is that really hurting you? It's two totally different things. So that's how I try to explain it. You're going from all of that dirt and gunk that is in a cigarette to just the vapor."
Do you use your product?
"Yes. I haven't smoked a cigarette in over a year."
Can e-cigarettes help smoker quit tobacco-filled cigarettes?
"Let's just put it this way. Quitting cold turkey works for about 2 to 3 percent of people, from what I've seen. Using nicotine gum, maybe 4 to 5 percent. The patch, 5 to 6 percent. What we're seeing is a 40 to 50 percent success rate with e-cigs. That's astounding. ... This stuff has only been around for about 10 years or so and I'm not a researcher, but all I can tell your is what I've read. But to me, if this is truly a product that is taking away the carcinogens and all of the other stuff from cigarettes, then this is a huge benefit to our country, I think."
Is the e-cigarette retail industry regulated?
"One thing that I did read is that the FDA is looking to it, if not my the end of the month, then by November, they are supposed to do some sort of regulation in the industry. But the government shutdown kind of held everything up. There are a few main things they mentioned that they're talking about. One is restricting online sales of e-cigs. Another is age restrictions. Nobody under 18 can buy cigarettes, which is something that we support, anyway. We're not trying to sell these things to kids. What's interesting about those regulations is this industry as a whole, believe it or not, has really regulated itself as far as making sure we're not selling to minors. Our goal as a business, and really our goal as an industry, is to help people switch. We're not trying to start new people into it. Our goal is to get people away from tobacco."
Is there any law against selling to minors?
"The governor of Illinois signed legislation this year that goes into effect Jan. 1. Legally, we don't have to, but we check IDs. If somebody comes in the store who is under 18, that's not somebody we're going to allow in the store, and we let them know that you have to be 18 to be in the store."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 618-239-2526.