Cliff Phillips, a 61-year-old retiree and former smoker, and his wife, Vali, enjoy electronic cigarettes at their home in Cuba, Ill. Electronic cigarettes like the one used by Phillips are at the middle of a social and legal debate over whether it's OK to "light up" in places where regular smokes are banned. E-cigarettes, which are gaining popularity and scrutiny worldwide, are plastic and metal devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge, creating vapor that the "smoker" inhales.
The electronic cigarette industry is on fire.
Marlboro cigarette maker Altria Group announced on Tuesday that it's getting into the $1 billion dollar e-cigarette business. And on Monday, another manufacturer Njoy, Inc. said it raised $75 million in funding from Facebook investor Sean Parker and musician Bruno Mars to be used for clinical trials and R&D.
Experts say electronic cigarettes could lap tobacco cigarette sales in the next decade. So what is behind these gadgets that have more and more of the country’s 45 million smokers swapping out their leafy nicotine for these battery-powered devices? Here is what you need to know about e-cigarettes:
What are electronic cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes look just like regular cigarettes - some come complete with a faux brown filter and orange light to mimic the end of a cigarette butt - except smokers do not need a fire source to light them. The electronic version holds a battery, a vaporization chamber and a cartridge that contains a dark liquid nicotine that heats up and changes into vapor. Smokers inhale them as they would regular cigarettes and there is no smell because nothing is burning.
Since e-cigarettes do not pose a threat of second hand smoke inhalation, some manufacturers are trying to market their products as a smoking alternative that can be consumed in places where regular cigarettes are not acceptable, such as bars, offices, restaurants and movie theaters. Some countries like Brazil and Norway have outright banned them, but Britain is now trying to regulate e-cigarettes as medicine to improve its quality and allow doctors to prescribe them to smokers who are trying to quit.
The amount of nicotine an e-cigarette delivers is dictated by the cartridge installed and controlled by the smoker’s preference. Nicotine levels range from full flavor to ultra light much like regular cigarettes do. There are also cartridges that have no nicotine to give smokers the sensory experience without the nicotine high.
Electronic cigarette smoking is not a cheap habit. A starter kit, which comes with a smoking device, cartridges, batteries and accessories can run about $60. A pack of five cartridges (one cartridge is equivalent to about one pack of regular cigarettes) runs about $10.
Manufacturers claim that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to their conventional counter parts, but the Food and Drug Administration is not sold on these high-tech devices yet. Officials say they don’t know if e-cigarettes are safe and if there are any health benefits to the products. In fact, back in 2010, the administration issued a number of warnings to e-cigarette distributors for violating certain rules FDA including “violations of good manufacturing practices, making unsubstantiated drug claims, and using the devices as delivery mechanisms for active pharmaceutical ingredients.”