The days of taking a cool, long drag off a cigarette are coming back. Smokers are even being welcomed back where they had been banished. Enter just about any bar these days and there’s likely to be someone taking a drag off what looks to be a real cigarette and exhaling not-quite smoke, often with one onlooker appearing startled and another asking the electronic cigarette smoker questions.
E-cigarettes (generally shortened to “e-cigs”) deliver nicotine by vaporizing e-liquid to be inhaled rather than by burning tobacco. They’re typically designed to give a similar experience to smoking. Users claim e-cigs offer the look, feel and comfort of real cigarettes. They’re typically filled with a blend of propylene glycol, glycerin, food flavoring and nicotine that a smoker draws through the e-cigarette and exhales as a fog-like mist.
The battery life, vapor flavor and cartridge life vary, as does the price. Many offer replaceable components, while others are tossed away once they’re used up. Thousands of different brands and configurations of e-cigs they can be found in retail stores, gas stations, convenience markets and online. (Just don’t expect that you will have the same success bumming an e-smoke off someone these days.)
Steven Markle of Marlborough, a kitchen designer, said he has been smoking e-cigarettes, or “vaping” as some call it, since May 2013. “It was the only way I could stop smoking Marlboros,” said Markle, who buys one to two packs a week of the Logic e-cig brand for about $20 per pack of five.
Markle said the transition has changed everything. “I feel so much healthier,” he said. He doesn’t miss the real deal at all. “It took about a week to make the conversion, but I soon forgot about real cigarettes,” he said. “Maybe for a couple months I would smoke a real one when I was drinking, but even that has come to an end…My skin looks better, and I can walk upstairs without losing my breath.”
“Toni” of Kingston, who asked that her real name not be used, said she smokes an entirely disposable e-cigarette brand, called NJoy. Each e-cig costs her $10 and lasts for as long as two packs of tobacco smokes. “It still gives me the socialization of smoking,” said Toni. “When everyone goes out to do it, and you can’t go out there to do it with them, you kind of lose your mind. Or when you’re driving in the car. It gives you enough nicotine to take the edge off.” Toni says her brand of e-cigarette is available at most gas stations and convenience markets.
Mark Marshall of Kingston was a committed smoker of 35 years. “My best friend had a quote about me, which is that I was the most likely to have come out of the womb with a cigarette in my mouth,” said Marshall. “I love smoking. I love it.” Marshall switched from Marlboros to more “natural” American Spirits in efforts to avoid the chemicals often found in cigarettes.
Three years ago, after failing to quit tobacco by using nicotine gum, the patch and the cold-turkey method, Marshall picked up e-cigarettes. They worked where other ways failed. “The thing about these is that it covers all parts of the habit.”
Marshall said people who encounter him “vaping” don’t typically react negatively, but he’s considerate when puffing on it. “I don’t smell like an ashtray, I got my breathing back, my sense of smell and taste,” said Marshall.
Like many people, Marshall said he orders his products online. The e-cig hardware cost Marshall $60 to $70. The liquid costs $13 a bottle and lasts Marshall two to three weeks.
Not everyone thinks e-cigarettes are the right answer. Many anti-smoking activists have doubts, noting that e-cigarettes eliminate many harmful substances in tobacco while still delivering nicotine. Ellen Reinhard, director of Tobacco-Free Action Coalition of Ulster County, said her organization’s position is not yet entirely settled.
“Our stand is tough, we deal with tobacco,” said Reinhard. “And e-cigarettes are new. So many things are not regulated. It’s a new frontier, and it’s scary, but we don’t know much about it.” Reinhard said she sees more cigarette companies jumping in the game. She is worried that their alleged comparative safety, paired with effective marketing — unlike real cigarettes, e-cigs can and are advertised on television — could get more young people addicted to nicotine.
“It’s becoming an aggressive industry,” said Reinhard. Many e-cigarettes are flavored with fruity or sugary flavors that would readily appeal to children, such as bubble gum, chocolate, cola and cherry. In September 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, citing nicotine addiction, signed a bill prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. “The [Food and Drug Administration] does not regulate manufacturing or sales,” said Reinhard, but the agency is expected to propose rules soon, maybe later this year.
Sales are doing pretty well — Bloomberg Industries projects $1.5 billion in e-cig business in 2014 — but still lag far behind those for tobacco cigarettes. $1.5 billion is what CVS, which decided last month to end tobacco sales, is giving up in revenue; the tobacco industry as a whole is valued at about $100 billion, states the Wall Street Journal.
E-cigs are sold without a license. “They are misleading people to think they can reduce their risk of problems rather than refusing any cigarettes,” Reinhard said. “The jury is still out. We don’t know. There’s no evidence this helps promote quitting cigarettes.”
A New York Times editorial published last fall advocated regulating electronic cigarettes, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding of an increase in their use by high school and middle school students. A national survey found that the percentage of high school students who had ever smoked e-cigarettes jumped to 10 percent in 2012 from 4.7 percent in 2011; for middle school students (grades six to eight), the figure rose to 2.7 percent from 1.4 percent.
Jeffrey Smith, a former heavy smoker who now describes himself as a sometimes-smoker, said he prefers the nicotine patch. Smith said he chooses not to use e-cigarettes because he does not want to continue the oral aspect of a habit he’s trying to leave behind entirely. “I only smoke once a week now,” said Smith. “I want to do less of that, not more.”
Read more about health issues from a local perspective on Ulster Publishing’s healthyhv.com.