Are E-cigarettes safe? Details are hazy.

Jeremy Hobson Sep 22, 2009

Are E-cigarettes safe? Details are hazy.

Jeremy Hobson Sep 22, 2009


Tess Vigeland: If you’re craving the taste of watermelon, peppermint or maybe clove with your smokes, as of today you’re out of luck. The Food and Drug Administration’s ban on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes is now in effect. It’s the result of the tobacco legislation signed earlier this year by President Barack Obama.

But there’s a new product that none of the new regulations will apply to. It’s called an e-cigarette or electronic cigarette. It’s basically a water vaporizer that delivers a dose of nicotine without emitting any smoke. Marketplace’s Jeremy Hobson reports.

JEREMY HOBSON: E-Cigarettes have been around for a few years, mostly in Asia. Now they’re being shipped over here in increasing numbers to satisfy a growing American appetite for them.

MATT SALMON: There’s probably in this country this year over a $100 million in revenues that will be generated due to this industry.

That’s Matt Salmon, a former Congressmen, turned president of the E-Cigarette Association. He and others in the industry say the product is not meant to help people quit smoking. It’s an alternative to cigarettes that doesn’t produce second-hand smoke. And doesn’t contain as many harmful chemicals as ordinary cigarettes.

SALMON: What we do know is that tobacco smoke or cigarette smoking kills over 400,000 people a year in this country alone. We ought to be looking at more alternatives to tobacco smoke for people and not less, because right now what we’re doing isn’t working very well.

A typical e-cigarette costs about a $100. But the cartridges are about one-fifth the price of an ordinary pack of cigarettes with the same amount of nicotine.

Cory Canaro tried e-cigarettes briefly.

CORY CANARO: I was looking for something that — where I’m not smoking all the time. You know, like an alternative. Because I’ve tried the gum, and I’ve tried going cold turkey, and my wife can attest that that’s not good for my personality.

But a report on the news about potential safety hazards caused him to go back to regular cigarettes after just a week. Khalid Nayar tried smoking e-cigarettes in his Manhattan office.

KHALID NAYAR: They eased the craving, I was able to smoke indoors, which was good.

But after doing some research, Nayar found the product hadn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

NAYAR: If we can determine what you know actually that vapor contains, and if it’s not harmful for you, then I would go back to it.

And that’s the thing. There’s no hard evidence either way about the safety of e-cigarettes. And until there is, the American Lung Association wants the products banned. Here’s the association’s vice president of national policy and advocacy, Paul Billings.

PAUL Billings: If they are to be on the market, they need to be demonstrated to meet the standards for a drug delivery device in this country, which is to be demonstrated to the FDA’s satisfaction that they are safe and effective.

Hobson: Are they safer than ordinary cigarettes?

Billings: Who knows? These are drug delivery devices. Nicotine is an addictive drug. FDA has found ingredients that we find in anti-freeze that are toxic to humans as well as carcinogens in the products in very limited testing.

The FDA wouldn’t comment on tape for this story. But the agency says it has the power to regulate e-cigarettes. It wants all sales and marketing stopped until companies have applied for FDA approval. But e-cigarette makers have taken the FDA to court. And until the case is settled, regulation is on hold.

Tiffany Ellis works for the company E-Cigarettes National. She says research from the UK and New Zealand proves the products are safe. And she says companies like hers are getting a bad rap.

TIFFANY ELLIS: A lot of people seem to think that — that we’re just in this to make money, and we’re not. Making money is not as important as the ideology of what you’re trying to support and that is freedom of choice.

She points to the example of her own grandfather. He smoked for 40 years, and has no interest in quitting. She says he just wants to smoke without harming the people around him. The issue of e-cigarettes in the United States is now in the hands of a federal judge. A ruling is expected soon.

In New York, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

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