NORFOLK, Va (WAVY) - Smokeless cigarettes are igniting a firestorm of debate as attorney generals from 40 states are calling on the FDA to regulate them quickly. But there's also debate about the risks and benefits of using e-cigarettes.
The devices work much like a vaporizer; liquid inside is heated by a battery. When a person takes a drag, they exhale the vaporized liquid.
Cheryl Hereford, who has been using e-cigarettes for more than year told WAVY.com she feels healthier than when she smoked regular cigarettes: no more smokers cough and her energy level is up.
"You don't smell bad, your clothes, your hair," Hereford said.
Could this truly be a healthy alternative? 10 On Your Side consulted with Pulmonologist Dr. Joshua Sill from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. He said the medical community generally doesn't know if the alternative to smoking is healthier.
"Certainly, all the risks to the cardiovascular [system] from the nicotine are still there," Dr. Sill said.
Nicotine is the second ingredient listed on the brands of e-cigarettes at a local convenience store. The e-cigarette also contains distilled water, natural and artificial flavors and, depending on the brand, Propylene Glycol, Vegetable Glycerin, and/or Polyethylene Glycol. These ingredients produce the vapor.
There is some controversy surrounding Propylene Glycol, which is used in antifreeze, but the FDA considers it generally safe. It has been used in asthma inhalers for decades.The FDA regulates that, but does not regulate it in e-cigarettes.
"There have been studies both in Europe and the United States that show there is decrements in lung function right after you smoke the electronic cigarette," Dr. Sill told WAVY.com.
Sill said long-term effects of using the device are unknown and without federal regulation, you can't be sure what's on the label is all that's in the product.
Most of the e-cigarettes you find in convenience stores are imported from China. There are also "higher end" versions sold on the internet and in specialty shops like Vapor Boutique in Norfolk.
"The disposable game is a little bit different than what we're doing and it's all about lowest possible price point, and it does give me pause," said Vapor Boutique owner Mac Salmon. "I would hesitate to tell someone to go buy a five dollar [e-cigarette] at a convenience store and just take some random company's word for it that it's clean."
Salmon's customers are willing to pay more, in part because they trust him. He told WAVY.com he welcomes FDA regulation because he's afraid of what big business might do to save a buck or make millions.
"Our philosophy is we have always and will continue to self regulate," he said.
That means no selling to minors and no smoke and mirrors.
"I won't say this is 100 percent risk free," Salmon said. But he does think smoking an e-cigarette is better than smoking a traditional cigarette, and the Dr. Sill is inclined to agree.
"You're using them to help quit smoking, then I would think probably your long-term risks are much better, but smoking e-cigarettes is certainly not as healthy as not smoking anything," Dr. Sill said.
The FDA initially tried to ban e-cigarettes as unapproved pharmaceutical products. However, the courts blocked that. Federal officials are trying to regulate them now as tobacco products, but some e-cigarettes can be used without nicotine. The FDA's decision on e-cigarette regulation should be released by the end of the month.
Last week, the European Parliament decided against treating these as pharmaceuticals. Instead they will regulate purchase age and advertising, like they do with conventional cigarettes.
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