Matches and ashtrays aren’t needed, and the cost is considerably less than traditional cigarettes.
That’s why Christian Berkey believes his company, Johnson Creek Enterprises, will double in size by this time next year and continue to grow into the future.
Electronic cigarettes emit a water vapor, not smoke, and JCE is one of the few in the U.S. that makes the liquid flavoring for the devices that look like a pen.
Many e-cigarette flavors on the market — most of which are spiked with nicotine — come from China, lack flavor and are jammed with dozens of ingredients, he said.
“The bottom line was that we could do this very differently,” said Berkey, a former two-pack-a-day tobacco user. “We’re getting requests from all over the country.”
Smoking bans are helping grow interest in the product. The majority of the sales are made through the company’s website, but the company is working on a plan to distribute its products to bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and convenience stores. Company officials want to begin marketing in Wisconsin, where a statewide workplace smoking ban takes effect July 5. The company then would consider expanding to the Chicago and Minneapolis markets, Berkey said.
JCE, founded in 2008 in the kitchen of his Johnson Creek home, has two brands with 17 flavors, but each has only seven ingredients. The company projects sales this year of $2 million and is looking for a bigger facility to replace its 1,900-square-foot facility two blocks from the former Gobbler Supper Club.
Berkey, 38, the chief executive officer, previously worked in retail for Apple computers in the Milwaukee area. Heidi Braun, 32, chief operating officer, worked at the Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. Both quit their jobs to start JCE. Braun doesn’t smoke and is asthmatic. During a 40-minute visit with her in a closed conference room, two of her co-workers used e-cigarettes virtually undetected.
“I wouldn’t be in a room with a smoker,” Braun said. “I wouldn’t have left my job to work here if I thought it would affect my lungs.”
This is a workplace where terms like “vape” and “vaping” are used instead of “smoke” and “smoking” and where traditional tobacco-filled cigarettes are referred to as “analog” cigarettes.
JCE doesn’t make the electronic cigarettes. Instead, lab technicians in a tightly controlled clean room mix flavorings to create half-ounce and one-ounce bottles of Johnson Creek Original Smoke Juice. In February, it launched Red Oak Smoke Juice, which contains vegetable glycerine instead of propylene glycol, which some people complain causes irritation, Braun said.
A $20 one-ounce bottle can last a month for someone who would normally smoke a pack of regular cigarettes per day.
JCE also sells to other companies that put their own brand on the product.
In March, JCE entered an exclusive partnership with blu Cigs, based in Charlotte, N.C., to provide the e-cigarette company with e-liquid. Flavors include Classic Tobacco, Magnificent Menthol, Java Jolt, Vivid Vanilla and Cherry Crush.
Because the industry is so new, the products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Berkey said he welcomes and expects FDA regulation. He said his company does not market its juice as part of a smoke-cessation program or to children. He notes that e-cigarettes don’t contain tar or harmful smoke.
Last summer, the FDA issued a warning about e-cigarettes over concern that it can increase nicotine addiction among young people and lead them to try tobacco-based products. The FDA also is concerned about the safety of the products because of a lack of studies.
A cigarette delivers nicotine to the user but also byproducts from the burning of the tobacco.
An e-cigarette doesn’t burn, but the effects of the vapor, both direct and second-hand, are not clear, said Dan McGarry, a physician assistant at Dean Clinic in Sun Prairie. He has helped people quit smoking for the past 20 years.
“I’m always bothered when we don’t have a normal evaluation associated with these things,” McGarry said. “It’s very much like smoking, and they haven’t been around long enough to establish a track record.”
Bob Spircoff, a sales representative for JCE, is convinced the product is better than traditional cigarettes. He used to smoke harsh, clove cigarettes and was coughing every morning. He now uses an e-cigarette throughout the day.
“It was like I was dying,” said Spircoff, 27. “My taste buds have come back, so I couldn’t go back (to tobacco) if I wanted.”
By BARRY ADAMS
Madison, June 24, 2010