LINCOLN PARK — Although the sign above 2516 N. Lincoln Ave. reads “21 Century Smoking,” the business sells no tobacco, no pipes and none of the other products most associated with smoking.
That’s because the shop specializes in e-cigarettes: electronic, odorless, battery-powered sticks which emit varying amounts of nicotine, ranging from zero to 24 milligrams.
“It’s a growth industry — it’s just a matter of finding where the growth’s at,” said founder Brent Duke, 34, a Bucktown resident and a former trader.
The Lincoln Park company also manufactures e-cigarettes and sells starter kits that begin at $69.95. What originated in mall kiosks on the west coast has since expanded and now employs 50 people nationwide.
Although not approved by the FDA, e-cigarettes typically are used by those trying to quit with controlled nicotine intake.
A casual smoker, Duke started the business in 2009 after he was introduced to e-cigarettes while working in multi-level marketing. He researched opportunities in the market and thought he could do a better job selling them. Ever since, Duke said he had seen a “countless” number of people use his product who had stopped smoking tobacco.
“Since I wasn’t a heavy smoker I couldn’t figure out if it would work,” Duke said. “But to get it in a smoker’s hands and see their eyes when they took a puff and to see that it worked - that it simulated something for them, an experience — that was the revelation for me.”
The main ingredients in 21 Century Smoking’s e-cigarettes are nicotine, propylene glycol and natural flavoring: food additives for the different types of flavored e-cigarettes they sell.
Milford, Conn., residents Elliott Trumpower, 65, and his wife Deborah, 56, are both 21 Century Smoking e-cigarette customers. Elliott began using two years ago, his wife a year later, and neither have picked up a regular cigarette since.
“I’ve spent well over $1,000 looking for the right e-cigarette,” he said. “Most of them are garbage. By accident I found Brent. I talked to him on the phone and he said he’d give a money-back guarantee if I don’t like it. I got it and I was impressed.”
Added Deborah: “I feel like I need a hand-to-mouth cigarette. It’s satisfying to me. I still get a draw from it when you inhale. Maybe it’s all psychological, but it works.”
21 Century Smoking is looking to expand its brand recognition beyond the shop and its kiosks.
This summer the company had booths at neighborhood and music festivals throughout the city, including Wicker Park Fest and Spring Awakening at Soldier Field. Duke said the company would have booths near the Soldier Field beer garden for most non-NFL events, as the Bears do not allow e-cigarettes inside the stadium during games. Duke added that his company recently signed a contract with the Near West Side club The Mid to sell $10 disposable cigarettes from a display case behind the bar.
But growth for 21 Century Smoking, and the rest of the e-cigarette market, hasn’t come without its hurdles. Duke spoke in front of Congress in 2010 when the state of Illinois passed a bill in the state senate to ban e-cigarettes because the FDA had not evaluated them for safety and effectiveness; the bill eventually died because Congressmen wanted more information about e-cigarettes before making a decision.
The American Association of Public Health Physicians supports e-cigarettes for adults because they “could save the lives of 4 million of the 8 million current adult American smokers who will otherwise die of tobacco-related illness over the next 20 years.”
Google does not allow the promotion of most tobacco or tobacco-related products because of legal regulations regarding the sale of products, according to its online policy.
Steve Spraker, 37, a partner in the company, said he tried advertising through a local newspaper for the Lincoln Park store but didn’t get results. He said the store had seen a gradual increase in sales by the month and that 80 to 90 percent of business comes from return customers, which is one reason why Duke feels the best way to spread the word about 21 Century Smoking is through a grassroots effort.
“There are people who live a block away who don’t even know it exists,” Duke said. “We get a lot of that because we’ve never been some giant company with a million dollar marketing budget to really put ourselves out there. We just have to go off our good product and treat the customers right.”