Just taking a vapor break.

Troy LeBlanc got pissed off this summer and decided to open his own e-cig store.

Last week, he turned a profit after three months and is at 180 percent of the target in his first-year business plan.

Pretty impressive, in a B-school case study kind of way. But LeBlanc has also stepped into a hot new marketplace that’s become totally controversial. And controversy leads to attention.

LeBlanc’s business — Derb-e-Cigs in Jeffersontown — revolves around a product that helps smokers reduce nicotine intake, perhaps helps them quit entirely, in the meantime provides something they seem to enjoy and, not incidentally, pretty much eliminates the secondhand smoke issue.

Sounds like a win-win-win.

But not everyone approves, including a few parties you’d never suspect. Like the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

New York Times editorial writer Joe Nocera (who’s decidedly pro e-cigs) recently wrote that the New York City Council is considering a bill forbidding the use of an e-cigarette anywhere that regular cigarettes are banned.

74799235_a6c8637950_bWhy? The rationale is that nobody knows enough about them. So the Times followed up that piece with an op-ed a day or two later by two professors of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. If nobody knows enough about them, they wrote, let’s find out — by doing some continuing research.

“If e-cigarettes can reduce, even slightly, the blight of six million tobacco-related deaths a year,” wrote the two academics, “trying to force them out of sight is counterproductive.”

When the Times contributes that much editorial space to a subject, you know it’s a Hot Topic.

Predictably, Troy LeBlanc leads the cheers for the benefits of e-cigarettes. He says those who “vape” reduce their nicotine intake by 60 percent immediately, whether they smoke a pack a day or just one with a martini. They also eliminate most of the other toxins that come with each inhale of cigarette smoke, particularly from the paper.

“FDA tests found 3,400 toxins in a single cigarette,” he told me, “versus seven in an e-cigarette.”

And, he insists, they “trick your brain” because you’re able to “smoke” whenever you want. They satisfy what he calls the “habit of the hand,” the unthinking  reach for your pocket whenever the situation calls for a cigarette — when you’re on the phone, having a drink or a cup of coffee, taking a work break.

He cited a study that says 37 percent of those who vape eventually quit both regular and e-cigarettes entirely; 56 percent continue to vape; and just 7 percent return to those portentously named “cancer sticks.”

About the terminology: “vaping” is from the verb “to vape,” from the noun “vapor.” It refers to the inhaling process of electronic cigarettes, nicotine in liquid form, sweetened with flavor additives and warmed to an inhalable vapor.

In the early to mid-1960s, about the time the U.S. Surgeon General proclaimed a direct link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, a Korean War vet and Pennsylvania scrap yard worker named Herbert Gilbert patented a device described as “a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” that involved “replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.” Gilbert was soon approached by several companies interested in manufacturing it, but it was never commercialized and disappeared from the public record after 1967.

Or did it? In the intervening 50 years — a time when various U.S. agencies required more and more stern warnings to put on cigarette packs, banned tobacco advertising from television and radio, and paid farmers not to grow tobacco — Chinese pharmacists took the smokeless cigarette concept, improved it, ran with it and captured the market.

A market that’s growing, by the way, internationally, in the U.S. and right here in Louisville.

How big? Big enough that it’s attracting the investment attention of Big Tobacco.

Electronic cigarette
Electronic cigarette

The Wall Street Journal recently sniffed that “e-cigarettes — battery-powered instruments that turn nicotine-laced liquid into vapor — represent only about 1 percent of the $100 billion U.S. tobacco market.”

You know what? That’s still a billion dollars!

Now to the story of Troy LaBlanc and his Derb-e-Cigs store at 9909 Taylorsville Road in J-town. But let him tell it:

“I walked into an e-cig store here in Louisville to return some item that was broken. I’d purchased it there the night before, but I didn’t have the receipt. I’d been a customer there for eight months, and she was the very person who’d sold it to me less than 12 hours earlier. But no ticket, no refund.

“I got so mad that I impulsively went online and placed a $5,000 order for e-cig-related apparatus. When it came in, I thought, ‘Now what the hell do I do with this?’ so I started selling the stuff online. What began as orders for five packages a day turned into nearly 100.”

Is there a market there? Do you think??

“I was up until 2:30 in the morning, just wrapping packages. Then Allan Morris said he had a space for me in J-town, just to store all this stuff, but it had a retail front.”

The stars were aligning. He quit his job finding usable office space for Regus clients and took both the warehouse space and retail front.

He put a guy out on the curb with a sandwich sign that said: ELECTRONIC CIGARETTES NOW OPEN.

Guy on the curb? That never works!

Or almost never. After three months, he’s had more than 1,000 unique transactions and a database of over 600 regular customers.

We’ve already told you about his quick run to profitability.

And all because of another store’s lousy customer service.

“If you treat people right, they’ll come back,” LeBlanc says about his customer service mania. “We’re not going to lose your business over $20. That other company lost mine over a $15.99 item, and now we’ve taken over 20 percent of that company’s market share.”

LeBlanc says he’s looking at opening three more stores next year and is in talks with possible franchisees in Pittsburgh, Nashville and Atlanta. And he’s working with a laboratory in Connecticut to develop more flavors like his currently popular Mountain Dew, Waffles and Syrup, and Strawberry Watermelon.

Can I put in a request for Johnny Walker Black Label? You know, for after sex?

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Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.

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