LOS ANGELES — Get ready to inhale, relax, and pay through the nose.
In Los Angeles, where weather forecasts routinely conclude with smog reports, plans are underway to open three oxygen bars--places where you can unwind by sticking plastic tubes up your nostrils and breathing deeply.
A Canadian entrepreneur says she will open two, and actor Woody Harrelson plans a third.
"It gives you a nice little buzz," said Harrelson, whose oxygen bar is expected to open in late June in West Hollywood.
"Oxygen gives you a clean boost of energy," said Lissa Charron, co-owner of O2 Spa Bar in Toronto, North America's first oxygen bar, which opened last year.
Flush from success in Canada, Charron says she expects to open three oxygen bars in New York this summer--SoHo, Madison Avenue and Wall Street--and a pair here this fall.
For $16, you'll get 20-minute doses of plain or fruit-scented oxygen, administered through sterile hospital-style nose tubes.
"I know L.A. embraces anything that's natural and health-driven," said Charron, 32, a former competitive swimmer. "Look at the whole Starbucks phenomena--people are interested in alternatives to smoky bars."
Enthusiasts see recreational oxygen as an antidote to modern living. A whiff, they say, eases headaches, boosts alertness, fights fatigue and reduces stress.
Charron says her daily dose--similar to what exhausted football players sometimes use on the sidelines--has allowed her to cut her daily caffeine consumption drastically. Without recreational oxygen, she says, she struggles to get through her 90-minute gym workout. "It makes me feel a lot cleaner in my lungs and in my system."
Some medical experts are skeptical, saying no scientific studies support such claims.
"It's a low-overhead, feel-good type of treatment--like getting a pedicure," said Dr. Edward Hill, a Mississippi family doctor and an American Medical Assn. board member.
Dr. Christopher Cooper, an associate professor of medicine and physiology at UCLA School of Medicine, said oxygen bars would be a short-lived trend.
"L.A. would be just the sort of prime-target city," he said. "People are extremely health-conscious here and they live in a polluted environment."
Responds Charron: "There are still doctors who think vitamins are a placebo."
Oxygen bars have become popular in Tokyo and Beijing, whose air is two to five times dirtier than in Los Angeles, which--despite its reputation--has improved its air quality recently.
Unlike the Asian facilities, Harrelson's oxygen bar aims to be more than just a place to inhale. His will serve health food and have space for yoga, he said.
"It's an experience designed to recharge you before you go out into a smog- and traffic-ridden state," he said Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival.
Other inquiries about Harrelson's bar were referred to publicist Tiffany Flynn, who declined to comment on any aspect of the project, including its name, saying frostily: "We are trying to create the right kind of buzz on this. We are not releasing any information now unless you can guarantee a front-page story."
To no one's surprise, Charron says her L.A. bars will probably be on the Westside. She plans to use her Canadian ad campaign, which shows a photograph of a beautiful, full-lipped woman with clear plastic tubes in her nostrils. The slogan reads: "If you thought bottled water was a stupid idea, then you better sit down for this one."
The O2 oxygen bars here will mimic Charron's Toronto facility, which a brochure describes as a "stress management center" with fresh organic juice to sip as you inhale pure oxygen. There, in a two-story building of glass and brushed metal, tropical fish swim in tanks as soft jazz plays.
Clients can choose to inhale at the bar or, for $20, in the solitude of private spa rooms equipped with their own fish tanks. Massage therapists provide oxygen facials ($70), oxygen body wraps ($125) or regular massages ($65).
When the Toronto facility first opened, most of its clients were curiosity seekers and tourists. Today, however, Charron has a steady crowd of tony and toned regulars, whose income generally exceeds $45,000, according to a survey she conducted.
The crowd is young and well educated, and they care about their bodies--even if that means they come in for a dose to cure a pounding hangover.
Scott Brown, who owns a communications business, started inhaling oxygen recreationally almost two months ago. Having moved to Toronto from Calgary, which has a higher altitude and less pollution, Brown, 46, immediately noticed that it was harder to breathe. It didn't help that he moved in with a woman with a cat, to which he's allergic.
The oxygen made a difference.
"It makes me breathe clearly. It feels like it opens up my lungs and makes me feel like I've got more energy," he said. "It could be a placebo, I don't know. But it works for me."
Zamichow reported from Los Angeles and Saylor from Cannes.