On McFarland Boulevard East in Northport, Nu Way Vape and a discount tobacco store are positioned side-by-side like a fork in the road, taunting smokers like a nagging inner voice to choose once and for all if they want to quit.
For now, the Vape shop is the road less traveled, but a path is quickly being forged as more folks herd in to hear the good news of electronic cigarettes.
“We believe fully that this is a thousand times less harmful than smoking cigarettes,” said Rob Roberts, one of the store’s founders, who speaks with the heavy drawl one might expect from a Southern man from Columbus, Mississippi,who wears a fedora reminiscent of Bear Bryant with every outfit. He wears it so often that customers fail to recall his name and just refer to him as “the man with the hat.”
“We already know cigarettes kill you,” Rob continued, tracing to a spot behind the counter where signs listing tobacco statistics decorate the wall.
“Tobacco smoking kills one person on this planet every six seconds,” he recited, pointing to the sign. “[Vaping] has killed no one to date.”
The words fell casually, earnestly from his tongue, with an ease that suggested the fulfillment he gets from sharing his ideas. After all, he has plenty reason to believe in vaping. He and his wife, Tina Roberts, and his sister-in-law, Debra Gruwell, all quit smoking with the vaping products that replace traditional smoke with water vapor. Who knew they would all end up going into business together?
It has been a little more than five years since Tina, quit smoking, thanks to her son’s prodding. She had been smoking since her teen years and had never successfully quit. But five years ago she and Rob became grandparents. One way or another, it was time to stop smoking.
“We didn’t want to raise the next generation smoking,” Tina said. “My son came up to me and he said ‘hey mom, have you ever tried electronic cigarettes?’ and I said ‘no,’ but the more I started looking at it, the more I realized that it really kind of mimicked smoking.”
She finally tried one and, honestly, she wasn’t impressed. There weren’t very many flavors at the gas station. In fact, there weren’t very many products available in general. She and Rob looked into it and realized that vapor cigarettes had only been around since 2006. The technology was there but the investment wasn’t.
“When we started this business we had no idea how big it would get,” Tina said. “Our goal was to keep the three of us working. The idea that we would have employees and multiple stores never crossed our mind. We just wanted to open a store in Florence and help those people where we live quit smoking and do a job that we had a passion to do.”
The business they began two years ago, Nu Way Vape, now has four locations. They opened the first store in Florence, Alabama, where they now live. Soon the folks across the river in Muscle Shoals started contacting them, so they opened a store there, as well, and in Rob’s hometown, Columbus. A little less than a month ago, they came to Tuscaloosa.
“I think that there was one vape store we knew about so we saw a real need here,” Tina said. “My husband is born and raised in Columbus, Mississippi and we were researching the Tuscaloosa market around the time we opened the store there and we saw the need.”
One person they met in Tuscaloosa was Leigh Ann Ashmore. Ashmore was a pack-a-day smoker when her daughter talked her into trying vaping. She was skeptical about it at first. It was the next morning, when she went onto her porch to have her coffee and morning cigarette, that she realized vaping had ruined smoking for her.
“I took two drags and put [the cigarette] out,” she recalled. “It tasted like the bottom of an ashtray.”
It’s been almost a year since she quit. Now she works with Nu Way Vape in Tuscaloosa to share her success story.
“I’ve had tremendous health problems all my life, and smoking made it worse,” Ashmore said. “I was doing three breathing treatments a day. Now [with vaping] I’m doing three treatments a year.”
Now she is the woman behind the bar at the new location on McFarland. A smoker can come into the store and sample any of their products for free. Ashmore asks them questions about what kind of cigarettes they smoke and how many they smoke in a day.
“Once we determine the nicotine level they need we can set them up with a product,” Ashmore explained.
At the bar, a variety of “juices” are available. When Rob, Tina and Deb decided to open Nu Way Vape, Tina and her daughter collaborated to open a lab to make the juices for their devices.
The juices are made from propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, pharmaceutical grade nicotine and food-grade flavoring. Ashmore likes to recall a story about the juices.
“There was a professor who came here from [the University of Alabama] and he bought random bottles and didn’t tell us what he was doing with them. Well, he’d went to other stores and he tested the juices and then he came back and told us that our juices were the only ones that contained the same nicotine levels that it said on the label. The [other places] were all over the charts.”
For now, Deb, Rob and Tina spend much of their time travelling back and forth between stores. Each one is equipped with a juice bar, a display case where customers can pick out their equipment, a repair station and a lounge area.
“People come out and they learn something every day just by watching the customers and listening to us and what we teach the customer,” Gruwell said. “They learn to rebuild, they can compare builds.”
They hope to develop their stores and their brand and to spread the message of vaping further but there is just one small problem. Vaping is still so new that the Food and Drug Administration can’t seem to make up their mind about how to regulate it. If Big Tobacco is making money off of vaping, things could get bad for small business owners like them
“They can possibly make becoming FDA-approved so expensive that the small business man can’t even afford it, even though they might have great equipment or great juice,” Tina said.
Rob worries that more cities will make a decision like the one in Tupelo, Mississippi, where vaping is banned in most public spaces except for businesses that earn 50 percent or more of their revenue from tobacco or vaping products.
“Basically, [vaping products] are regulated the same as [cigarettes], so no vaping in public, not in-doors, not in restaurants,” Rob said. “In other words, you’ve got to go out to the smoke-pit to vape. I think that’s wrong.”
“Once the FDA makes a regulation you either abide by their regulation or you can’t continue the business as you’re doing,” Tina added. “And, unfortunately, some of those rules are being made out of ignorance, meaning they don’t know enough about vaping and how vaping affects a person to make a regulation on it.”


About The Author

Judah Martin is a senior studying journalism at the University of Alabama.

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