Electronic Cigarette Burning Into U.S. Market

FDA insists the product needs safety testing


If you're a smoker and you've ever tried and failed to quit, this may be just the thing for you.

Long popular in other countries, battery-operated electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigs" look and taste like the real thing and even release vapor that looks like smoke. But they don't have the killer tobacco or tar in them, makers say. Instead, they contain liquid nicotine, the highly addictive ingredient in cigarettes, in a base of propylene glycol fog -- the same chemical used in theatrical smoke..  Alternately, you can get versions that have no nicotine at all, just a flavored fog.

“It works like a fog machine,” said Brad Owens as he lit up in his local bar. “No tar, carcinogens, no first- or second-hand smoke.”

Owens said he quit his cigarette habit soon after he began using an electronic cigarette.

“This is a harmless chemical that the FDA has already determined is safe for human consumption,” said businessman Christian Berkey, the only U.S. manufacturer of the liquid that goes into the e-cigs. “It’s an alternative to smoking.”

But there are critics. E-cigarettes are banned in Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. That’s mainly because all of the devices, and nearly all of the liquid, come from China. And despite claims to the contrary, there’s no proof that the Chinese liquid contains no harmful chemicals. There are no independent scientific studies that show exactly what’s in the liquid imports, or that prove  e-cigarettes can help people to stop smoking.

The FDA has tried to stop e-cig imports. It is currently being sued by an e-cig distributor for claiming authority to regulate electronic cigarettes, but that may become a moot point. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would clearly give the FDA. authority over the devices -- because the agency considers them unapproved drugs that need to be tested for safety.

Any safe device that helps people cut down or quit smoking real tobacco is a good idea, Chicago smoking cessation expert Carol Southard said -- but until she sees scientific evidence that they’re safe and effective, she can’t recommend e-cigarettes. She’s also concerned that e-cigs in a child’s hands may lead to smoking real cigarettes at an early age.

The president of the U.S. division of SmokeStik maintains that there are no dangers in the product.

"We have taken away every single harmful chemical in the cigarette and left nothing but a nicotine delivery device," said Brian Culwell. 

Ruyan Group Ltd, a Beijing-based company, was the first to develop electronic cigarettes. They say its patented atomizer technology allows users to get an immediate nicotine fix without being harmed by the hazardous chemicals produced when tobacco is burned.

Canada-based SmokeStik says its products are not meant to help people quit smoking.

"We're saying, if you want to smoke ... at least choose a healthier alternative," Culwell said.

As the debate continues, thousands of people are buying e-cig kits. Sellers say there have been no reports of medical problems from using them.

Brad Owens purchased his kit for $50 from a Chicago-area distributor. He soon found an added benefit to using e-cigs over cigarettes.

“When I went dating, it makes it easier when you’re not a smoker."

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