Despite smoking's stigma in regards to its health effects, there is something undeniably elegant - even classic - in the way a puff of smoke floats and swirls freely, with no attachments or controls. For the few moments it exists to the eye, it seems alive as it dances until it dissipates into the atmosphere.
Dakota De La Rosa, who runs the popular hookah supply website, hookah-shisha.com, calls it captivating. " ... something about exhaling (smoke or vapor) clouds is captivating, and I think that plays a major role in the mystical history behind social smoking," he said in an email interview with the Sun-Gazette.
Smoking is an activity that has been practiced, indulged, and both enjoyed and scrutinized for many millennia - as early as 5,000 B.C. It is seen in the scribings of ancient civilizations. And although smoking for recreational purposes has taken many forms, some forgotten and some evolved, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
Above is Tim Clair, of Cogan Station, and Derrick Boone, of McElhattan, as they smoke and browse e-cigarette accessories at LiteCigUSA, 228 W. Third St
Shown above are some of the wide array of e-cigarette flavor liquids available at LiteCigUSA, some of which are nicotine free.
Shown is Boone’s personalized e-cig, with Apple Jack flavoring.
Shown is is Matt McKay, who was a 2 1/2-pack-a-day smoker for 17 years before switching to e-cigs.
Shown is is Matt McKay, who was a 2 1/2-pack-a-day smoker for 17 years before switching to e-cigs.
Shown are hookahs at Lamphouse Hookah, a new hookah cafe at 431 W. Third St.
Social smoking as a whole appears to be on the rise; Centers for Disease Control reports especially among youth, as hookah lounges and vape shops (vaporiums, which specialize in e-cigarettes) have opened up in cities across the country. Flavors as traditional and "natural" as tobacco, to more convivial flavors like fruit loops or peaches 'n' cream, can be found in hookah lounges and vape shops.
This growing subculture of people who enjoy smoking hookah and e-cigarette vaping can even be found in Williamsport, as several businesses have popped up in the city in the last year who offer, sell or specialize in these particular products and services.
Electronic cigarettes - aka e-cigs, vape pens, e-hookahs or vapor delivery devices
HOOKAH IN WILLIAMSPORT
Hookahs are not a modern invention, unlike e-cigarettes. Use of the waterpipes began centuries ago in ancient Persia and India, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's hookah fact sheet at cdc.gov says that hookahs are defined as "water pipes that are used to smoke specially made tobacco that comes in different flavors, such as apple, mint, cherry, chocolate, coconut, licorice, cappuccino and watermelon."
CDC says that hookah use is a growing trend, with studies of young adults showing high prevalence of hookah use among college students in the United States.
A few businesses in the area opened in 2013, jumping on the trend, offering hookah as an option for a recreational activity.
What's to enjoy about hookah smoking? Dakota De La Rosa, who runs hookah-shisha.com, said, "I think social anything is important to our culture. People want to be brought closer to people like them."
Since hookah smoking is almost always done in a group setting, De La Rosa said that people tend to look at it as a social bonding experience, as they "pass the hose," sharing stories.
Lamphouse Hookah, 431 W. Third St., opened its doors only about six months ago, in August 2013. The shop can be seen on the corner and is easy to spot, with big, colorful curtains that drape over a large wrap-around window, with a little lamp sitting on the sill in the middle.
The lounge is owned by a trio of friends in their early 30s - Mark Neidig, Doug Lambert and Shawn Seyler, who all are originally from Williamsport and have been friends since they were young.
Upon walking in, customers are greeted with a lowlit and laid-back atmosphere, and likely some reggae music in the background.
The idea to open the cafe and lounge came to fruition after smoking hookah in cafes nationally and even internationally.
Lambert said he had "been into shisha for years" and was first introduced to hookah when he was deployed to Kuwait while in the military in 2003. The three realized their mutual interest in social smoking, and all with a keen business sense decided, what better place than a town with two colleges and a booming gas industry to open a hookah shop?
So Lamphouse Hookah embodies their vision, which includes what they hope is a multicultural experience. They offer food from all types of cultures.
And, despite tobacco smoking not being considered healthy overall, Lamphouse Hookah still aims to give patrons the cleanest environment and healthiest feeling possible when they come in. The lounge has two giant smoke filters that clean the air 16 times an hour.
Neidig noted that they offer organic juices, protein shakes, coffee and tea, among several other healthy menu items, and also added that the cafe does not allow cigarette smoking, only shisha.
"You don't have to be a smoker to come in and smoke it (hookah). We don't want to subject people to cigarette smoke. And if you don't want to try tobacco, we have a hookah that people can smoke (herbal) tea out of," Neidig said.
Their hookahs use natural coconut coal and also offer nicotine-free tobacco.
They have plans to expand in the future; they plan to implement the ability to use an app to order a hookah on a smartphone, and also plan to hold music events and dance parties.
"I think this is one of the healthiest choices for college kids who are looking for a late-night social experience," Lambert said, adding that getting drunk at a bar is probably less healthy than smoking hookah.
He also enjoys the fact that hookah businesses seem to bring in a really interesting, diverse customer base, more so than the average food joint.
Imbibe Lounge and Night Venue
Imbibe Lounge and Night Venue, 321 Pine St., opened in October 2013, and owners Alyssa Clark and Jade Camerer said that "hookah was always a part of our vision because it was something new to the Williamsport area, and it engages customers and creates an awesome social environment."
And, like the owners of Lamphouse Hookah, they aim to promote health. Both are non-smokers and therefore had a specific vision in what they offer.
None of their hookah contains tobacco or nicotine, and uses shisha steam stones called Hydro Hookah Vapor Stones.
"It involves no tobacco, which means no harmful chemicals. They are tiny rocks soaked in flavoring that when heated to a certain temperature, it releases flavored steam," Clark and Camerer said. "You should still be able to engage in other things at lounges and bars other than drinking heavy amounts of alcohol. It's a great way to socialize and unwind with friends."
Indulgers' last words
The owners and employees of LiteCigUSA, Fat Cat Vapor Shop, Lamphouse Hookah and Imbibe Lounge and Night Venue, some of whom are smokers, some of whom are not, all seemed to end their thoughts on a similar note: There are a lot of ways to harm oneself in the world, and that the occasional hookah or indulgence in e-cigarette smoking, if done in moderation, should be acceptable recreation for those of age.
"I probably shouldn't drink soda, but I do alcohol, chemicals, there's a lot more going on. I mean, you can leave a McDonalds burger lay out for two years and it'll look the same," LaJoie of LiteCigUSA, in a joking-but-serious tone, said.
All of these businesses can be found on Facebook and on the Web.
Electronic cigarettes join a growing heap of "e-" gadgets of the 21st century.
Some e-cigs look almost identical to a traditional cigarette - a tan end and a white top - while others look like futuristic pens with buttons and other personalized accessories.
And while many brands are disposable, like some e-cigs found at a gas station, other non-disposable brands have evolved into something more like an iPhone, in that they have become a stylish gadget that can be personalized.
Although the devices were first introduced to the public approaching a decade ago, only in the last year have they started to become an ordinary sight in public.
For those who frequent bars and pubs, depending on the business owner's stance on vape pens, you might see someone puffing on one even indoors, because what's being emitted isn't smoke, it's vapor. Electronic cigarettes also are known as vape pens, e-hookahs or more broadly as vapor delivery devices, and do not contain tobacco. Users also may buy "e-liquid" that contains no nicotine.
E-cigarettes, at the moment, are regulated in only a few states. They currently are causing controversy between some health experts and the businesses who sell them, because their exact health effects in regard to whether vaping is "bad" or not, and whether it lures in a younger audience, is still not entirely known and is being studied.
This article does not delve into the specific health effects of smoking, just the rising trend, focusing on the Williamsport area. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at cdc.gov for in-depth facts, statistics and health risks regarding smoking.
Area entrepreneurs embrace the trend
LiteCigUSA, 228 W. Third St., took advantage of the new vapor technology several years ago, when the store's owner Shawn Probst started selling e-cigarettes online. Eventually, the business needed a physical location.
The West Third Street location opened in July, and has been doing such good business that they are soon moving to a bigger shop next door. They plan not only to sell merchandise, but also to double as a lounge to give folks a place to hang out and vape.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the shop is bustling with customers of a vast age range, puffing on their devices as they browse LiteCig's array of e-liquid flavors and accessories. The shop has a very sleek, modern feel to it with touch screens and e-devices, right down to an electronic trash receptacle; when one steps into the shop - or presumably any vaporium for that matter - the 21st century really is put into perspective.
Rusty LaJoie, 26, store manager, has never smoked a whole traditional, combustible tobacco cigarette in his life (maybe half of one, he said).
But he enjoys vaping for the social aspect of it and occasionally indulges in smoking hookah. He said, at the moment his favorite vape flavor is probably strawberry lemonade, but that he "bounces around. Most people do."
He says that people try vaping for several different reasons.
"Vaping is a substitute (for traditional tobacco cigarettes) for some people, for others it's a whole new hobby of turning a liquid into a vapor form," he said. "I use no nicotine sometimes, but sometimes my favorite flavors only come in a really low level of nicotine so I'll use that because it's not enough to really feel the effects."
Working at LiteCigUSA, he has taken notice to the wide variety of people who vape.
"Vaping is somewhat of a community. We have people in their 80s using this stuff, all the way to college (age) people."
Matt McKay, who laughed as he called himself a "permanent fixture" at LiteCigUSA, was sitting at one of the tables smoking a frost berry flavored e-cig when he interjected about his experience with the devices. He used to smoke 2 1/2 packs of traditional cigarettes a day for 17 years and switched to e-cigarettes overnight.
He said he has experienced a number of health improvements since doing so. His mother smokes e-cigs too, but not necessarily for the "substitute" reason.
"My stepmother quit something like nine years ago. She enjoys vaping with either zero or very low levels (of nicotine). She enjoys the flavors. It gives her something to do other than eating or snacking," McKay said.
LaJoie compared vape shops and the community that has grown around it to that of a coffee shop, like Alabaster.
"I live above Alabaster Coffee and Tea, I went down this morning for coffee. I saw five or six different groups of people enjoying the same thing. People just lounging around enjoying their coffee enjoying different flavors," he said.
Although the business is doing well, they have experienced their fair share of negative reactions, but LaJoie noted that the negativity mainly comes from not understanding.
"People think it's a weed-smoking device. People walk by popping their head in asking if we're a head shop. Not even close," he said.
At the moment, people can either buy their products online at www.litecigusa.net or at the shop.
They had a location in Lock Haven, but it closed because the trend didn't catch on there, according to LaJoie. They plan on opening shops in other locations across the state.
Fat Cat Vapor Shop, 2655 Wilmont Drive, Montoursville, opened in December. Chris Hughes, in his late 40s, is the owner and a former heavy tobacco cigarette smoker.
He is frustrated by bans that have been introduced in some states, and feels that people using e-cigs should not be forced outside next to smokers of tobacco cigarettes, because they're not the same thing.
He argues that "many of the harmful chemicals in cigarettes are a product of combustion. Because there is no combustion in e-cigs, the vapor contains only what is in the liquid being vaporized."
"A whole culture has sprung up around e-cigs, and people that consider themselves 'vapers.' People should remember when they see someone using an e-cig, that they aren't glorifying smoking, but rather are glorifying not smoking, which is a pretty good thing to glorify as far as I'm concerned," Hughes said.