KEMAH, Texas (AP) — Alex Rangel opened Boardwalk Elixir, a stone's throw from the Kemah Boardwalk, in 2014.

After years of making vaping liquids for himself and his friends, he decided to go into business.

The Galveston County Daily News reports it was fortuitous timing. The Kemah store, which shares a building with a coffee shop, a pizza joint and a tavern, opened just at the start of an American vaping boom.

"Business was great," he said, with an emphasis on "was."

In recent months, what had been a booming business has dried up, Rangel said. Most mornings, he receives emails or calls from regular customers worried about continuing to use vaporizers or electronic cigarettes, he said.

The reason? Frequent news about people diagnosed with a mysterious lung disease that federal health officials have connected with e-cigarette use.

"Recent media has basically turned the lights off," he said. "Because they're using the word 'vaping.'"

Over the past several months, nearly 1,300 people, including three Galveston County residents, have been diagnosed with a lung-related illness that causes coughing, chest pain, nausea, fever and weight loss. The disease has been linked to 26 deaths in 21 states.

No direct cause has been identified for the illness, but federal officials said all the cases have been linked to e-cigarettes and have cautioned people against buying black market e-cigarettes that contain THC, the active compound in marijuana.

Those products aren't sold in Texas retail stores, but owners and managers of some of the dozens of vape and smoke stores in Galveston County said the suspected connection to those illicit products had scared even longtime customers off using the legal products they sell.

"It's been horrible," said Sam C. Grizzaffi, the owner of Firehouse Vapors on Marina Bay Boulevard in Kemah. "It's totally destroyed our business."

The store specializes in handcrafted vaping liquids, known as juices, Grizzaffi said. The store's name, and theme, comes from his other job as a Houston firefighter and the store advertises itself as "saving lives 24/7."

The safety-themed message hasn't helped much. The store's monthly sales have dropped by half this summer, and one manager has had to find another part-time job to make ends meet, Grizzaffi said.

"I don't know what the future holds for us," Grizzaffi said. He's considering converting the business into a bar.

"I don't know what else to do," he said.

The ominous signs aren't limited to fewer customers.

Suppliers and manufacturers are cutting back or closing, not only because of the illnesses, but because some cities and states are considering banning certain popular products, Grizzaffi said.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker recently initiated a four-month ban on the sale of vaping fluids, cartridges and accessories. Rhode Island halted the sale of all flavored e-cigarette products.

There's been no indication of widespread bans in Texas, but Texas A&M University, which has a campus in Galveston, has banned the products from its facilities and properties.

The Galveston County Health District recently announced two local men had been diagnosed with lung ailments. That came a month after a different county man, who is attending college at Texas A&M University, came down with the same symptoms.

The health district did not connect the Galveston County cases directly to the use of THC-based products, although district officials recommended people avoid vaping products that contain THC.

Not every case of the lung disease has been directly connected to products that contain THC. In its most recent update, however, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most of the cases seemed to be linked to THC, and the substance was playing a major role in the outbreak.

While vaping often is marketed as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, it comes with many of the same health warnings. In light of the lung disease outbreak, the CDC recommends people not use products containing nicotine and that young people, pregnant women and adults who don't use tobacco products should avoid using e-cigarettes.

Eddie Habert, a sales clerk at Imperial Smoke N' Vape, a store with locations in Kemah, Texas City and Friendswood, made the classic salesman pitch: He's doesn't just sell the products, he uses them, too.

"Vaping's been very helpful for me," he said. "As a consumer, it kind of worries me because I am working at a store where I do sell these products. But I do a lot of research and I keep up to date with all the stuff that's going around."

His strategy to avoid trouble has been to keep using a single vaping flavor — Fuji apple strawberry nectarine — which he said hadn't caused him any health concerns.

"I'd never change it up," he said. "All my friends vape, and none of them have ever gotten sick."

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Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, http://www.galvnews.com

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