In the laboratory of the California Vaping Co., Dakoda Collins mixed up one of his signature potions. Wearing a surgical mask and gloves, he carefully measured out colorless, liquid nicotine from a plastic jug.
He drew the nicotine into a fat syringe, then shot it into a large glass beaker of amber fluid, where it would be swirled with an industrial-strength immersion blender and gently heated.
Collins, 26, makes high-quality e-liquids, the fluid used in electronic cigarettes. This batch was a custom flavor, Cut Strawberry, made for a local chain of vaping stores. The room smelled like a bakery full of delicious, slightly chemical treats.
Last month, Oxford Dictionaries lexicographers announced they'd chosen "vape" as 2014's word of the year. My family Christmas card is based on the word of the year, so I needed a tutorial. Collins was happy to be my guide.
To vape is to "inhale or exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device." The vapor, often nicotine-infused, is produced by heating a liquid made with propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, two solvents widely used as food additives.
The vapor is not hot; there are no harsh chemicals or tars. Your hair and clothes don't reek.
Despite the fact that the vaping industry is estimated to be a $4-billion business in the U.S., it has the feel of a slightly underground, countercultural enterprise. Advocates say this is because vaping is a grass-roots, consumer-driven phenomenon that has not been co-opted (yet) by major tobacco companies.
As sales of tobacco cigarettes have steadily declined, e-cigarettes have boomed in popularity. Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog has predicted that, in 10 years, vapers will outnumber smokers.
Though the FDA is studying e-cigarettes and has proposed banning sales to minors, the industry is, essentially, unregulated. And despite a dearth of research on secondhand vapor, dozens of cities, including Los Angeles, and a handful of states have banned e-cigarettes from public places.
No one claims that vaping nicotine is actually good for you, but many doctors say it is far less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. Nicotine is highly addictive but is not considered a carcinogen.
"Nothing is good to inhale other than air," said Lou Ritter, 52, a pro-vaping former smoker who founded the American E-Liquid Manufacturing Standards Assn. in Sedona, Ariz., to promote safety and uniform standards. "But the problem with tobacco is not nicotine."
Dr. Neal Benowitz, a UCSF professor of medicine and nicotine expert, agreed. For the most part.
"If we are talking about nicotine versus cigarettes, nicotine is far less harmful," he told me. But nicotine is not totally benign. There are concerns about its effects on the cardiovascular system, on diabetes, on wound healing and on pregnant women. Some researchers suspect nicotine may have adverse effects on the adolescent brain.
Still, Benowitz said, "if you say, 'I am going to use e-cigarettes to quit smoking,' I think that's a perfectly reasonable way to go. But you should also totally quit regular cigarettes."
Collins, a former DJ, discovered vaping when he was in rehab in Florida a year and a half ago. He'd landed there after his increasingly self-destructive drinking habits were exacerbated by his short-lived hard-cider business. Florida was too hot for cigarettes. He took up vaping.
When he returned to California, he helped his entrepreneur father, David, transition from smoking to vaping. They considered opening a store, but so many were popping up, it made more sense to make shops their customers, not competitors.
Last year, with financial backing from his father, Dakoda Collins founded California Vaping Co. in an industrial park. The company now sells to stores in 20 states and eight countries.
"Smokers trying to quit," Collins said, "I got the recipe for them."
As I chatted with Collins, a customer wandered in to buy some White Mango, a popular flavor.
Lee, 61, who did not give her last name for privacy reasons, is a program analyst at Qualcomm. After smoking for 40 years, she was inspired to give up her pack-a-day-plus habit by a vaping colleague who quit smoking.
"I noticed he no longer stunk," she said. "And he was not so winded on hikes anymore."
She vapes three times a day. Walking her dogs in her hilly Del Mar neighborhood is no longer a struggle. "I feel a whole lot better," she said.
The last time she tried a cigarette, she said, she was repulsed.
To vape, Collins uses a $300 rectangular brass modular device — a "mod" — that fits comfortably in his hand. During my visit, he vaped a low-nicotine version of Bandit, meant to evoke a flavorful tobacco, with notes of caramel and toasted almond. It reminded me of my father's pipe, a favorite childhood smell.
Collins was pleased when Oxford conferred its imprimatur on "vape."
"I was just really stoked," he said. "I thought about all the people who said this was just going to be a trend. It's pretty obvious that we are here to stay."
He took a long pull on his mod and exhaled. For just a moment, he disappeared behind a cloud of thick white vapor.