Jonathan Leemon stood before a glass case filled with hundreds of brightly-colored, miniature bottles of liquid nicotine solution. French vanilla, Belgian coco, and strawberry beckoned, just a sampling of the 120 flavors available to be "vaped" with the electronic cigarettes for sale.
The 24-year-old Santa Rosa man had been smoking up to two packs a day of traditional menthol cigarettes for eight years. But five months ago he decided to try an electronic cigarette, and he's barely puffed on its tobacco counterpart since.
"I absolutely love it," Leemon said. "For me, it was an overnight change."
Leemon's favorite flavor is called "sub-zero," because it has the minty feel of the menthols he used to smoke.
Leemon was one of a steady stream of customers on a recent weekday afternoon at DigitalCiggz, a Santa Rosa store that sells a variety of electronic cigarettes. Owner Michael Mullins and his staff could barely keep up with the steady stream of customers coming through the door, some for refills of the nicotine solution and others who wanted to try electronic cigarettes, which convert nicotine-infused liquid into an inhaleable vapor.
Mullins opened his Santa Rosa store a year and a half ago, and launched a second store in San Rafael in November. Because of the strong demand, he plans to move the Santa Rosa store to a larger location nearby with nearly four times the retail space, he said.
"There really hasn't been a product like this to come on the market before, and really give the customer the sensation that they're smoking," Mullins said. "I think that in the electronic cigarette industry you'll see more and more brick-and-mortar stores."
The e-cigarette industry has been growing at triple-digit rates, reaching an estimated $250 million in 2011 and an anticipated $500 million in 2012, according to a report by UBS Investment Research.
The possibility of reduced risk of health problems, significant cost savings, and just smelling better are some of the reasons smokers are switching to electronic cigarettes.
"Over the last year-and-a-half there have been leaps and bounds in the technology of electronic cigarettes," Mullins said. "One of the best things is that it doesn't even look like a cigarette."
The earliest electronic cigarettes, sold in convenience stores, looked very much like their traditional counterparts. But newer models can be as thick as cigars or, in the case of the "MVP" model made by "iTaste," about as large as a pack of Virginia Slims, and equipped with a USB port that can be used to charge an iPhone.
Each e-cigarette contains a rechargeable battery pack, a cartridge where the flavored liquid is added, and a built-in atomizer that turns the nicotine solution into vapor that can be inhaled.
At his wife's urging, Mullins tried his first electronic cigarette about four years ago and didn't like it. As the models improved, he found one that he liked.
"What got me into this business is that everywhere I went, whenever I pulled out a cigarette, people were amazed," Mullins said. "They said, 'What is it?' 'Where can I get it?' and, 'Does it work?'"
He started an online retail business while holding a day job, and when that business took off, he eventually opened the physical location. The College Avenue store, with black leather couches in the entryway, is designed to be like a tobacco shop, a space where customers can relax and also learn about the technology, he said.