HEALTH

No smoke, but lots of fire in debate over electronic cigarettes

Updated: 2013-09-30T02:01:12Z

By JAMES A. FUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

When Kim Kruger dropped her cigarette while driving, she feared she’d set her car on fire. Then she remembered. Her cigarette was electronic.

A few years ago, virtually no one knew anything about e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that don’t burn tobacco, but rather heat liquid nicotine into a smokelike water vapor. Today, more than 250 companies sell them in flavors such as bubble gum and peach schnapps. And now sales are set to top $1 billion.

“I can smoke them in my office,” said Kruger, of Gardner. “It doesn’t smell, doesn’t get in your hair. It’s very undetectable.”

Multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns are just now hitting magazines and coming straight into your living room. Yes, 43 years after regulators kicked the Marlboro Man off the nation’s airwaves, Big Tobacco is back on TV, with Jenny McCarthy and other celebrities trying to make smoking — or as it’s called with e-cigarettes, “vaping” — look cool. The advertising onslaught is potentially so powerful that some tobacco analysts predict sales of digital smokes could surpass conventional cigarettes in the next decade.

But a backlash is heating up:

• Last week 40 attorneys general called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products, saying the devices are marketed to young people through ads featuring cartoon characters and candy flavors. The FDA is expected to act as early as October.

• A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this month said the number of high school students who have tried e-cigarettes more than doubled in the past year, undermining decades of efforts to curb youth smoking.

• Earlier this month in Provo, Utah, an e-cigarette plugged in to charge in a car exploded and burned a 3-year-old boy in his car seat. And that’s only one of several reports of exploding e-cigarettes.

Asked to comment, FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski referred to a general warning on the agency’s website: “As the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers … have no way of knowing whether (they) are safe for their intended use.”

Blu eCigs, which employs the faces of McCarthy and actor Stephen Dorff, claims the most sales — $114 million in the first half of this year, according to Blu eCigs’ president Jim Raporte. It’s owned by Lorillard Inc., the nation’s third-largest tobacco company.

Now other brands, both large and small, are gearing up for a fight. Altira, the nation’s largest tobacco company, debuted its MarkTen e-cigarette in August. R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest, rolled out ads last month for Vuse, its “game changer” of a disposable “digital vapor cigarette” that requires neither assembly nor charging. (The others must be charged with devices such as a computer USB port or a car connection.)

V2 Cigs, a small Florida company, claims to be the nation’s leader in customer satisfaction, while independent brand NJoy has raised $75 million from investors such as Napster founder Sean Parker and singer Bruno Mars.

Kruger chose another independent — Green Smoke. She enjoys trying various flavor cartridges, including menthol ice and mocha mist. While the plastic cigarette is heavier than conventional smokes, everything else seems the same, she says.

But there was a problem. Instead of quitting regular cigarettes, she went back and forth between the two and actually ended up smoking more.

“There’s times when you can be puffing away getting way more nicotine than if you had just gone outside and had a (regular) cigarette,” she said. “You’re not manually counting your puffs to measure just how much nicotine you’re getting.… It’s easy to get too much. And then your body gets used to it. But I don’t see electronic cigarettes as completely negative. I think with anything there’s good and bad. I just think you need to be aware of all the facts.”

While some smokers say e-cigs have helped them kick the habit, public health advocates worry the devices may be creating more problems than they’re solving.

“The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” said CDC director Tom Frieden in a statement. “Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.”

Adam Morris, a 20-year-old singer and college student from Lenexa, switched to e-cigs about a year ago. The flavors were great, and the product less expensive (starter kits can sell for as low as $25 but go for as much as $200, including more replacement cartridges). And they’re certainly healthier.

But since his e-cigarette gave him many more puffs per dollar, he used it more often. And since each puff was more potent, he quickly became even more addicted to nicotine.

“You get a lot more nicotine a lot faster,” he said.

At least with the type of e-cigarette he was smoking. Many brands offer varying amounts of nicotine, or, if you prefer, no nicotine.

For Morris, everything was fine until he lost the base of his e-cigarette, the most expensive part. He found he was so addicted he bought several packs of conventional cigarettes and smoked them in a day, just to satisfy his cravings.

He still smokes e-cigarettes.

“I’m going to keep doing it because as a singer, (my voice) is my main instrument,” he said. “And smoking electronic cigarettes is a lot better for me.”

Still, much remains unknown about e-cigarettes. Most are imported from China, which experts say raises concerns about quality control.

And inhaling nicotine by itself can still be harmful. Doctors say it increases blood pressure and constricts and hardens blood vessels. But it is unarguably less harmful than sucking down the tar, charcoal, carbon monoxide and 4,000 other chemicals found in conventional cigarettes that are known to cause cancer.

And a 2011 study at the Boston University School of Public Health showed that 67 percent of more than 200 smokers reported smoking less after using e-cigarettes, while 31 percent quit.

While e-cigarettes remain unregulated at the federal level, some states (not Missouri or Kansas) and cities have restricted their use, and they’ve been banned on all U.S. flights and Amtrak trains.

Next, should Internet and underage sales be banned? What about the enticing flavors attractive to kids? Should warning labels be required? And should e-cig ads be banned from TV?

“We believe future e-cigarette regulations should ensure sales and marketing to youth is prohibited,” said Raporte, Blu eCigs’ president. “That said, we believe these responsible marketing parameters can be achieved without suppressing adult access.”

Whatever happens, J.T. Marshall, a longtime smoker from Kansas City, said he’s made up his mind about e-cigs.

“I might never try them, but I just may have to invest in them,” he said. “These dang computer smokes look like they’re here to stay.”

To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send email to jfussell@kcstar.com.

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