LIMA — Charged like a cell phone and producing flavored vapor that’s inhaled, e-cigarettes are booming in popularity as a debate rages about whether they should be regulated and uncertainty remains about their health effects.
The battery-powered products heat nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin and flavor into a vapor that is inhaled. Vapor is also all that’s exhaled.
Electronic cigarettes are now widely available at convenience stores, gas stations, tobacco shops and independent stores devoted exclusively to the sale of e-cigarettes, oils and accessories. They remain unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Business at DG Essentials on Elida Road was increasing slowly since the shop opened in August 2012. Over the holidays, people really discovered the store, manager Chad Reeder said, and now they are busy. He sees multiple benefits of the e-cigarettes over traditional tobacco products.
Cigarettes have hundreds of ingredients that create thousands of chemicals when burned. At least 50 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer, and many are poisonous, according to the American Lung Association.
The e-cigarettes Reeder sells have just a few ingredients, including propylene glycol and glycerin, which are included in many foods today.
“There’s just four to five chemicals, including food products,” Reeder said.
Some would counter that propylene glycol is a chemical and people can be sensitive to it — but traditional cigarettes are a known health risk.
Most of the people buying e-cigarettes at DG Essentials are trying to quit smoking, Reeder said. Customers can buy flavored oil in a range of milligrams of nicotine, from zero to 24 milligrams. Traditional cigarettes can also be purchased with a range of nicotine, also topping out at 24 milligrams.
Customers who buy oils with zero milligrams of oil are typically hookah smokers, Reeder said, who enjoy the convenience and portability of an e-cigarette.
Reeder said e-cigarettes’ prices are also an advantage over traditional cigarettes. However, they are cheaper now because they are not regulated, or taxed. The government wants to regulate them only so it can tax them, Reeder believes.
E-cigarettes come in a range of prices and configurations. Some are charged with a USB cable and some have rechargeable batteries. Depending on the life of the battery and quality of construction, an e-cigarette can range from $20 to $150 at DG Essentials. After the initial investment in a device and charger, oils are $5 to $7. A small bottle is the equivalent to a carton of tobacco cigarettes.
National brands, such as blu, can be purchased initially as a starter pack for $70 or more online and in retail locations. Cartridges then cost $10 to $12 for a pack of five. Disposable E-cigarettes can cost $40 for a four-pack.
At first, tobacco cessation therapist Nancy Bonifas was hopeful about e-cigarettes. The concept of being able to taper off nicotine levels while smoking something that was less harmful was appealing to her. But now, she has concerns about them. Bonifas is the Activate Allen County Tobacco Free Living Team leader. She believes the marketing of e-cigarettes, along with the flavors available for the oils, draw young people who wouldn’t otherwise smoke, to become addicted to nicotine.
She also is concerned that people are inhaling something without full knowledge of what it is doing to their bodies, and because there is no regulation, there is most likely wide variation of ingredients among makers.
“The jury is still out on them,” Bonifas said.
The FDA does regulate a nicotine inhaler that’s available by prescription. Bonifas recommends that, not an e-cigarette, for people who are looking for a tool, such as a patch or gum, to help quit.
Flavors run from mimicking traditional tobacco products (imagine the taste of a Marlboro) to the fruity, minty and snacky, such as cotton candy, cherry and candy bars. At DG Essentials, Reeder sells 120 flavors. Customers can buy a personal mini-vaporizer for $1 and sample any of them for free.
Because they are not regulated, there is no federal law prohibiting sales to minors. However, Reeder’s company policy is sell only to those 18 and older — and they card customers. Many e-cigarette manufacturers also support state laws prohibiting sales to minors.
Ohio law currently does not speak in any way to e-cigarettes. There is an effort in Columbus to prohibit sales to minors. Ohio’s smoking ban does not apply because e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco. As a result, many bars in the area allow them indoors and employers are currently wrestling with policies in the absence of law. Local and state governments are beginning to address them. On Jan. 16, for example, the city of Chicago passed a measure restricting where they can be used and how they can be sold.
On Jan. 17, federal officials marked the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s first report on the dangers of smoking. The FDA currently regulates cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. The FDA has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes and says it intends to issue a proposed rule extending the agency’s tobacco product authorities beyond the those products to include other products like e-cigarettes.
In September, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine joined 38 other attorneys general to co-write a letter urging the FDA to issue proposed regulations on e-cigarettes.
The request is now National Association of Attorneys General policy, expressing concern that manufacturers use marketing tactics similar to those tobacco companies used in the past to attract new, especially young, smokers. The policy also expresses concern about advertising as a safe alternative to smoking, health effects not yet adequately studied and the highly addictive nature of nicotine.