Diluting the New York Times’ e-liquid madness with Bristol’s Vapor Chef

Way back in 1936, Motion Picture Ventures released Reefer Madness, helping in its wake to establish the decades-long War on Drugs and set back cannabis research for at least as long. This past Sunday, the New York Times released its own incarnation, but with a different topic in mind: E-cigarettes. 

Titled “Selling a Poison by the Barrel,” the NYT piece attempts a takedown of liquid nicotine, or e-liquid, the active ingredient used in e-cigarettes and personal vaporizers. It warns us that e-liquid is a “dangerous new form of a powerful stimulant” that will come to “seriously poison or kill” people as it becomes more ubiquitous. Scary stuff.

Aras Azuolas, however, works with the stuff every day and doesn’t see much cause for concern—or at least not rabid, sensational concern, anyway. Probably because as owner of e-liquid producer The Vapor Chef out in Bristol, he practices proper safety precautions with his supply in a state-of-the-art facility.

Since starting up in January of 2013, Azuolas has grown his initial one-man team to an 18-person squad that pulls in upwards of $10,000 in retail sales every day. That’s a lot of e-liquid, and the Vapor Chef himself doesn’t have any fatalities or poisonings to account for.  I recently had the chance to talk with Azuolas about the NYT piece, his ever-growing business, and just exactly how we should regulate the new and expanding technology that is the e-cigarette.

As someone who produces e-liquid professionally, what was your initial reaction to the New York Times piece?

My first reaction to the New York Times piece was very Dude-like: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” Yes, anyone can go out and buy a 55-gallon drum of 10 percent nicotine solution. But what the article doesn’t say is that no one who uses a vaporizer will have that at home, let alone use it. If they do have it, they probably know better than to leave it out, but I’ve not met a single person that uses the stuff personally.

So if highly concentrated nicotine solutions aren’t for personal use, who uses them?

We use 10 percent solutions, but we also make e-liquid. We keep the 10 percent solution under lock and key, and the highest we’ll sell to a customer is 2.4 percent. The 10 percent solution is for diluting down and mixing, so we buy the high concentration and cut it down to whatever the customer prefers. It is specifically for mixing, and basically all the juice makers I’ve talked to use a 10 percent base. 

LA Weekly compared the tone of the piece to Reefer Madness, saying that it exists to inspire fear in readers. What’s your take on the way e-liquid has been presented?

These words are being specifically used to scare people. They are caustic. We know it’s a neurotoxin and have for years—if that bothers you, you should not use e-liquid. Again, though, this stuff isn’t more dangerous than the household chemicals you own, or even alcohol. Sure, poisonings will happen with e-liquid, but you can say the same about drinking cleaning products or getting hit by a car. Powdered caffeine is available right now completely unregulated, and that can kill you, too. It’s just a matter of time with that as well, so shouldn’t it be regulated?

What precautions does Vapor Chef take when handling concentrated nicotine mixtures?

Our fill room is cleaned daily, and has tiled floors, powder-coated stainless steel tables. We use food-grade containers for our products, and all our mixing equipment is lab-quality glass. We refrigerate our nicotine in a locking refrigerator.  A lot of it has to do with training and getting people to properly mix everything. But as far as protection, I have my employees wear gloves, eye protection, chef coats (because we’re the Vapor Chef, duh), and close-toed shoes. Even when they’re using diluted bases, gloves and eye protection are mandatory. We also use a nicotine PH test kit for our batches to measure everything and make sure it’s right before we send it out.

What about cleanliness?

The only way we could be cleaner would be to put in a HEPA filter, which I’m doing for this spring. There are particle filters already, so it is filtered air coming into our filling room. HEPA would just be an extra little step for us. If someone wants to inspect our place, this is cleaner than any restaurant I ever worked in.

That type of self-regulation seems to be fairly constant among e-liquid producers. Do you see a lot of producers imposing such strict precautions on themselves?

There is tons of self-regulation out there, plenty of responsible businessmen. But that takes time. I didn’t think I’d be doing this, and now we’re shipping 300 packages a day, retail. I’m 100 percent ready for workplace regulation, but I planned for it. About 10 months ago, I wouldn’t have been ready. There are a lot of small companies out there that aren’t ready to be regulated. But if you can’t put up photos of your facility, you’re not going to put out a good product.

Do we need to start imposing those regulations on producers now?

Regulation will stop people from starting new companies, but I am sort of for it so I have a mixed view. Honestly, I would say give it five years and then impose regulation. Just don’t pull the Reefer Madness thing and then throw out some severe regulation and taxes because that will kill off anyone interested in getting started. I mean, e-cigs aren’t even 10 years old yet, so we need the innovation new people and new minds coming to this industry will bring.

Does the fact that e-liquid is available in a variety of sweet flavors play any role in how dangerous it’s perceived to be?

I don’t see any problem with having flavors, we’re clearly not attracting kids. If they’re going to try drugs, they’re going to try them—it doesn’t matter what you do. If you leave it out and your kid picks it up, that’s your own fault as a parent. That’s going to happen, but it’s because we are human and we have faults.

You seem to be very middle-of-the-road on the regulation issue. What regulations would you like to see go into effect?

If they’re going to regulate e-liquid and nicotine, then I believe they should regulate caffeine and companies like Starbucks, too. They should also take cotton candy vodka off the shelf, and not sell mocha lattes to kids that are under, say, 16 or so. But that’s not going to happen, it’s too idealist.  I’d love to see 18-plus laws, and manufacturing facility inspections and that’s it. Online sales, of course, should be allowed, but with stricter age verification. I want to see regulation that drives the industry in the right direction instead of just crushing it. Either that, or nothing at all.