“It’s like a pub without alcohol.”
Mum-of-two Robyn Holtham is very proud of her shop near York Bridge in Morecambe.
When ‘Up In Smoke’ is busy, the room is full of people chatting sociably, engulfed by a haze of mist and a sweet smell somewhere between toffee and strawberries.
They chill out listening to music and challenge each other to inhale and blow rings of ‘vapour’ shaped like a jellyfish.
They even practice this art of ‘vaping’ as a competitive ‘sport’. The shop holds regular ‘cloud chasing’ tournaments where the person who blows the biggest cloud is the winner - mimicking the actual world vaping championship which has a whopping prize pot of $100,000.
This budding social group in Morecambe is built around the growing phenomenon of electronic cigarettes or e-cigs.
E-cigs have been growing in popularity since they first went on sale in the UK in 2007.
Now around one in 20 adults uses them, almost all in an effort to quit smoking.
But their use has divided health professionals and anti-smoking lobbyists.
In April a report by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians said e-cigs are much safer than smoking because they do not contain tobacco and there was no evidence that ‘vaping’ encourages people to move on to cigarettes.
The Action on Smoking and Health website says: “The harm from smoking is caused primarily through the toxins produced by the burning of tobacco.By contrast, non-tobacco, non-smoked nicotine products, although addictive, are considerably less harmful.”
But the World Health Organisation and scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Liverpool are among those who still have safety worries.
Scientists at the University of California warned in December 2015 that e-cigarette vapour damages DNA in ways that could lead to cancer.
In March, ministers in Wales tried to ban e-cigs from public places but the bill was narrowly defeated.
And earlier this month a Blackburn e-cig manufacturer failed in a court challenge to European Union laws which class its merchandise as ‘tobacco-related products’ despite it not containing tobacco.
The firm’s boss called the ruling a “terrible mistake” and “a fundamental dispute between those who recognise the public health potential vaping offers...and those who either do not understand vaping or see it as a threat to established interests and therefore wish to see e-cigarettes subjected to disproportionate and inappropriate regulation.”
Robyn, who runs Up In Smoke with her husband Adam, says there should be some regulation of e-cigs.
“At the moment it’s a free for all. There are some who aren’t responsible retailers.
“They started looking at regulations in 2010 when the vaping community was tiny. They thought they could make legislation and nobody would bat an eyelid. In the six years since, the vaping community has become massive.
“I’m not qualified to talk about the long-term health effects. But if you break down what’s in the liquid, it can’t be as bad as what’s in cigarettes. The ill-effects of cigarettes are well documented so while it may not be perfect it must be better.”
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine by heating a solution of nicotine, flavouring, additives and propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine (glycerol).
The devices typically consist of a mouthpiece, battery and cartridge or tank containing the nicotine solution.
When a user sucks on the device, a sensor detects air flow which activates a heating element (the ‘atomiser’) which heats the liquid in the cartridge so that it evaporates.
The vapour delivers the nicotine to the user, replicating the ‘hit’ of a cigarette and the action of putting cigarette in your mouth and producing a cloud.
It is illegal to sell e-cigs containing nicotine to under 18s. So retailers like Up In Smoke stock a range of non-nicotine products. There are thousands of flavours available, from chocolate to Chewits, creating the sweet smell often found in the shop.
But aside from the social and fun aspect of vaping, e-cig supporters like the Holthams maintain that they are extremely effective for those who want to give up smoking.
Adam himself smoked cigarettes for 15 years until he tried an e-cig. He says it’s given him a new lease of life.
“I play squash and I notice that my lung capacity has improved and I can last longer on the court,” he said.
“I feel fitter and healthier than ever.”