E-cigarette sales red hot in the UC

UPPER CUMBERLAND – From retail shops, gas stations – even rural county jails – electronic cigarettes are becoming bigger business in the Upper Cumberland.

Nationwide, sales of the product, devices that contain a nicotine-based liquid that’s vaporized and inhaled, could reach $1.5 billion this year, according to Bloomberg Industries.

Breaking that number down locally is more difficult, but so far sales in Cookeville have met projections for Saffire Vapor, one such growing company that recently transitioned from an online- only outfit to also include five brick-and- mortar stores, including three more on the way. Its Cookeville location opened on South Willow Avenue in December; two more in Knoxville and one in Smyrna is also planned.

Owner Robert Arnold agrees with the Bloomberg projections, including the one that has e-cigarettes surpassing traditional tobacco in a matter of years. That could happen as early as 2023 – and certainly by 2047. As a result, more of the product is seen on shelves – from gas stations to similar stores – across the UC.

“It’s a no-brainer for some people, now that electronic cigarettes are of good enough quality that you’re going to get the exact same experience you would have from a regular cigarette but without the smoke (or the smell),” he said. “We are actually doing a lot more business in the brick-and-mortar stores, too, because people are still very new to this type of product, and they want to come in and talk to somebody face-to-face. They want to pick it out, hold it, test it. And these are things people can’t do easily with online commerce. I believe that’s why they are coming in the stores in the high volumes that they are.”

E-cigarettes also seem to be high volume in jails these days, including in a handful of county jails in the region. Macon County Sheriff Mark Gammons, who was recently profiled by the New York Times in a story focusing on the trend of rural jails selling e-cigarettes to inmates, sees it as a way to decrease contraband snuck into jail. Cigarettes are the most common item. But, on a larger scale, it’s a way to increase revenues. E-cigarettes in Lafayette come with a nearly 300-percent markup. Gammons told the Times he projected an additional $20,000-$50,000 in revenue from e-cigarettes this fiscal year.

In Putnam County, Sheriff David Andrews said the availability of e-cigarettes has cut down on the number of incidents inside the jail. At one time, he projected 80 percent of inmates housed use tobacco in one form or another.

While the effects of inhaling nicotine vapor are not totally understood, some say e-cigarettes actually help smokers quit. Other groups, such as the American Cancer Society, say there’s no scientific evidence to support that claim.

And it’s all but assured more restrictive legislation will hit the market at some point. Before the end of last year, New York City banned electronic cigarettes in public places. New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota, too, ban the use of e-cigarettes where smoking is prohibited. Currently, in Tennessee, the only restriction statewide is you must be 18 to purchase. Saffire Vapor is actively planning for any potential law changes.

“I think you’re going to see regulations that restrict the marketing of electronic cigarettes. It will probably be, advertising wise and marketing wise, very similar to regular cigarettes,” Arnold said. “So there’s not going to be cartoon characters (directed at kids), advertisements in certain places, and that will probably cut out television advertising, radio advertising.

“What we do, we try and operate in as responsible as a manner as possible,” he said. “Those are things that are going to be addressed in the next couple of years.”

In the meantime, the company, he said, is not planning any other UC locations – the Tri-Cities is likely the next target – but he, and other retailers, have seemingly found Cookeville a profitable home.

“Cookeville is really a great trade area,” Arnold said. “Even though there’s not a huge population in the city limits, there’s a lot of people coming here to do their shopping and go to work and that sort of thing. It was a good move for us.”

Liz Engel is the editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. She can be reached at liz@ucbjournal.com

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