E-cigarette retailer expands as industry evolves

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli
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James Xu says his company focuses
on cigarette smokers who are trying to
quit. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Richmond-based Avail Vapor is ready for the masses. “Our goal is to be the Starbucks of vaping,” says James Xu, Avail’s CEO and one of its founders.

In pursuing its goal, the company is rapidly expanding. It opened its first electronic cigarette store in 2013 and anticipates having more than 70 locations by year’s end in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, Kentucky and Ohio.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that use nicotine along with flavorings and other chemicals to deliver vapor instead of smoke, a process that’s known as “vaping.”

Avail is just one player in the rapidly developing U.S. e-cigarette industry, which is expected to grow from an estimated $1.2 billion in U.S. sales to more than $20.2 billion in the next decade, according to a recent Research and Markets report.

Xu says the company focuses on cigarette smokers who are trying to quit. While acknowledging e-cigarettes are not risk-free, he believes they greatly reduce the potential harm caused by smoking.

Xu cites a new study released by Britain’s Department of Health, which says e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco and can potentially help smokers give up the habit. An entrepreneur whose family owns Richmond-based Evergreen Enterprises, Xu credits e-cigarettes with helping his wife quit smoking. That is one of the reasons he started looking at the industry.

Nonetheless, the Food and Drug Administration says there’s a lot yet to be learned about e-cigarettes, including their potential risks. The e-cigarette industry expects to see FDA regulation soon.

Xu wants the FDA to set standards for the e-cigarette industry, and he says his company already is following what he anticipates those changes will be. The list includes following good manufacturing practices guidelines in producing e-cigarettes liquids (known as “juice”) and changing the names of flavors that may be enticing to children.

While Xu welcomes FDA regulation, he hopes it doesn’t stifle an industry that’s still in its infancy.  “If you’re heavy-handed, you basically killed off … any of the possibility [of creating an industry] that really, really benefited public health in the long run.”

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