Electronic Cigarettes Booming In Popularity, But Are They Safe?

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The sale of electronic cigarettes in this country is booming. Three of the major cigarette companies are cashing in on the growing popularity of e-cigs. They’re selling them now. Even though they’re not FDA approved, more and more people are using them to kick the habit.

It’s getting tougher for smokers to find a place to light one up. That and other reasons are why more and more people are turning to electronic cigarettes. The battery operated e-cigs are designed to deliver heated nicotine through flavored water vapor.

Chris Ray says, “It started in 2009 and it’s safe to say sales have doubled everyyear since then.” Ray and his business partner own two Eco-Smoke stores in Huntsville. They set up shop in Huntsville two years ago and say business is good. The website promotes their electronic cigarettes as a smarter and less expensive way to smoke. Ray tells us, “The main difference is there’s no tar, no tobacco going into the lungs. You’re inhaling nicotine, food flavoring agents and propylene glycol.”

Bryant Castellow smoked for 33 years. He couldn’t smoke around his wife because of her breathing problems. He gave up cigarettes and started using an electronic cigarette three months ago. And he says he doesn’t miss cigarettes at all. “It’s working very well. I sleep better. The food tastes better,” Castellow told us. And since his e-cig smells like banana nut bread and caramel apple, his wife lets him smoke inside their home now.

Another customer, Justin Crisler, told us “I don’t really call myself a smoker anymore. I say that I quit smoking because I did. I quit smoking real cigarettes but I am vaping now and I’ll plan to continue that until the urge is gone.” Justin hasn’t had a cigarette in almost four months. He’s also set a goal to lay down the e-cig and be nicotine free in six months.

The nicotine delivery system can be customized to satisfy the nicotine levels of each customer with everything from no nicotine to what you’d find in an unfiltered cigarette, even light cigars. But are e-cigs safe? That depends on who you ask. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 44 million people smoke cigarettes in this country. And about one in five adults who smoke have tried an electronic cigarette.

Electronic cigarettes are not marketed as a way to help you quit smoking. “That is correct,” says Chris Ray. “The FDA does not approve this as a smoking cessation device therefore we do not in any way market it as a smoking cessation device. It is what it is. It’s an alternative. It is supposed to be a substitute for tobacco, period.” He says customers tell them they’re using the product to kick the habit. Ray added, “They can use that to wean themselves off tobacco and eventually nicotine.”

While some are vaping to get off cigarettes and even dipping, some have no intention of giving up either. “I will be a lifelong smoker,” says WZYP’s radios morning man Mojo. “I mean, I just will. I’m not looking to quit smoking to be honest with you.” Mojo doesn’t smoke at home around his kids so he vapes. He’s says puffing on an e-cig still allows him to enjoy the sensation of smoking when he’s somewhere he can’t light up. “For instance in the studio,” he said. “I can use my electronic cigarette because there is no smoke. It’s a water vapor.”

Business owner Chris Ray is nicotine free but still uses an electronic cigarette. Ray smiles and says, “ I’m not a smoker, I’m a vaper.” But is vaping safe? Sonya Tinsley responds to that question by simply saying, “We do not know if it’s safe.” Sonya smoked for 20 years but quit 11 years ago. She’s now a tobacco control coordinator for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Tinsley says, “It took us years to learn about the true dangers of a cigarette so it’s going to take time with the e-cigarettes.” Electronic cigarettes are so new, we don’t know if they’re a safe alternative to smoking. “The FDA is doing a lot of studying on the e-cigarettes right now, Tinsley told us, “But it will take many years to do that.”

I asked Justin Crisler if he’s worried about the long term effects of vaping. He responded with, “There could be a long term effect possibly and I do worry about that. There’s no way around it but I still think it’s better than smoking a real cigarette.”

I also asked Sonya Tinsley if it’s safer to use an e-cig rather than smoking a cigarette. Her response was, “As of right now, we have not taken a stand on that because the data’s not in. We don’t know enough about the e-cigarette to recommend them.” The CDC says while it appears that e-cigarettes don’t have anywhere near the toxins found in smoke from traditional cigarettes, the long term health effects of vaping e-cigs could take years to determine.

We also wondered if people who fire them up in public places are breaking the law. In most cases, electronic cigarettes are not covered by smoking laws. Here in Huntsville for example, e-cigs weren’t around when the city adopted its smoking ordinance. So people aren’t doing anything illegal if they use them in a public place. City attorney Peter Joffrion tells us the council could amend the law to include e-cigs in the future, but so far it hasn’t come up.