You won’t find the Marlboro Man pushing tobacco on TV anymore, but you will find other familiar faces flaunting electronic cigarettes. Celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, Stephen Dorff and Courtney Love have signed on to pitch the devices, and national sales of e-cigarettes have caught fire. In North Texas, e-cigarettes are big business, even though physicians worry they aren’t as benign as we’re being told.
In Texas, it really is the Wild West for electronic cigarettes. Without clear guidelines on where you can use them, it’s inhale before you inquire.
*The KERA radio story
“I just do it a little bit and see if anyone starts staring,” Gill Snyder, 25, says. Like a lot of e-cigarette converts, Snyder picked up his first pack of traditional cigarettes young – at 16 – and has tried to quit several times.
“I’d always go back, it would start with one cigarette here and another there and next thing I know I’m smoking a full pack a day again,” he says.
Until Snyder found the electronic cigarette. The one he uses isn’t an imitation of the Marlboros he once smoked – though plenty of those are on the market. His looks like a small, black flashlight with a mouthpiece on the end. The device uses a battery to heat a liquid nicotine solution you inhale, or “vape.”
“Whenever I inhale it gives me like a nice feeling in the chest like a regular cigarette would, and it produces a lot of vapor,” he says, “I don’t crave smoking cigarettes.”
But What About The Health Effects?
Assistant professor Caroline Rickards is studying the effects of inhaling vaporized nicotine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“They’re being advocated as an alternative to cigarettes, but the long-term effect is really unknown right now,” she says.
“The issue is that because they are relatively new to the market, there’s just not the long-term studies. We really don’t know.”
E-cigarettes don’t have to play by the same rules as tobacco cigarettes. Minors are free to buy e-cigarettes in stores and online, and the FDA doesn’t regulate the chemicals in them. The battery-powered devices come in all shapes and sizes, and while they don’t contain tar or carbon monoxide, some have carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, such as diethylene glycol, with the FDA describes as an ingredient used in antifreeze.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for tighter regulation of e-cigarettes. Dr. Tom Frieden, the agency’s director, says they’re especially bad for kids, and he’s concerned about the number of middle and high-school students using them.
Every day, around a hundred people walk into Vixen Vapors in Pantego, TX. Lyndee Davis opened the electronic cigarette store – decorated with red, white and blue – a year and a half ago. Starting out, business was slow, she says.
“Now we have 25 employees to help us run the store and the day-to-day functions,” Davis says.
Vixen Vapors is like the Starbucks of e-cigarettes. You can get the device itself, all the accessories — charging cables, holders, car adaptors — and any nicotine strength and flavor combination you want. Right now, Davis says the most popular flavor is something called “Tigers Blood.” Fruit flavors also sell well.
Critics say combining nicotine with candy flavors is a surefire way to get teens and kids hooked on a substance we don’t know much about. Davis says it’s a combination that helped her quit smoking. Over a period of months, she lowered the amount of nicotine in her liquid concoction down to zero. A new study backs up her claim, showing that e-cigarettes may be as effective a tool to help smokers quit as the patch.
Prices vary, at Vixen Vapors starter kits go for fifty five dollars, and refills are about four bucks. Still, makers and users say you save money over time. So far, the hand-held devices have been most popular with millenials, but more experienced smokers are also vaping.
Pat Cox of Fort Worth wears her e-cigarette on a lanyard around her neck,
“After 58 years,” she says, “I quit smoking. And I wouldn’t trade my vapor for all the tea in china.”
For now, she doesn’t have to. The FDA doesn’t have any rules on the books yet, but says it plans to start regulating electronic cigarettes. That’s good news for doctors worried that vapor might not be as benign as it seems.