E-cigarettes offer nicotine without tobacco, but are they safe?
No more smoking for Scott Riddle.
Now he vapes.
"Vaping" means he inhales the vapor from an electronic cigarette, a battery-powered device that typically looks like a cigarette, but delivers nicotine without the tobacco and smoke.
Electronic cigarettes, Riddle say, lets him enjoy the pleasures of smoking without its downsides.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administrations says not so fast. The FDA warns that e-cigs are not safe, has seized some shipments, and is fighting in court to keep the e-cigarettes away from the public.
Following a nationwide crackdown on smoking in public, the dispute over e-cigarettes raises new questions about personal freedom, public health, addictive drugs and government regulation. It also begs the question: could this be the future of smoking?
An electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, is a small cylindrical device that looks like a cigarette or a pen. When users inhale from it, a heating element vaporizes the liquid in the mouthpiece cartridge, which contains nicotine and propylene glycol - a common chemical approved for use in foods, cosmetics, and smoke machines.
Users exhale a vapor that looks like smoke but without the cancer-causing tar and carbon monoxide.
E-cigarettes can have varying levels of nicotine, to match regular, light and ultralight cigarettes.
Riddle, a public safety dispatcher who lives in Schaumburg, was a pack-a-day smoker for 12 years before he tried an e-cigarette this June.
Riddle had tried a nicotine patch, and nicotine gum, which he called "disgusting," but nothing simulated the habit of smoking like an e-cigarette.
The day he started using e-cigarettes was the last day he smoked an "analog" cigarette, as old-fashioned smokes are called.
"It replaces my need for a cigarette," he said.
Now he can use it around friends, in their homes, and in bars or restaurants, because there's not that smoky smell.
People in public, including bar and restaurant workers, ask him what it is, and when he explains it, he says they have no problem with it and often want to try it or see if it could help someone they know quit smoking.
Riddle says he feels much healthier.
"My lung capacity has increased tremendously," he said. "I'm able to taste foods better now, and can smell better now."
Some restaurant owners support the idea as well.
Hossein Jamali, owner of Meson Sabika tapas restaurant in Naperville, said he hasn't seen the e-cigarettes, but would allow them as a way to help people quit smoking.
Since they don't burn tobacco, don't have the resulting smell and don't need an ashtray, he said he didn't anticipate a problem differentiating them from regular cigarettes.
Since last year, Illinois has banned smoking in public places, but it's not obvious whether the language in the law applies to e-cigarettes:
"Smoking" is defined as "the carrying, smoking, burning, inhaling, or exhaling of any kind of lighted pipe, cigar, cigarette, hookah, weed, herbs, or any other lighted smoking equipment."
The Illinois Department of Public Health regulates the ban, but spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek said the agency has not taken a position on whether it applies to e-cigarettes because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved them, so they are not a legal product to begin with.
Nevertheless, numerous companies sell e-cigarettes on the Internet and at mall kiosks and truck stops.
Chris Ray sells e-cigarettes through CigTechs.com, a business he started this year from his home in Schaumburg.
A starter package runs about $50 for a charger with two electronic cigarettes and five cartridges. Each replaceable cartridge is comparable to three to five cigarettes.
Ray, whose day job is as an information technology analyst, has had two shipments from his manufacturer in China seized by the FDA. He says he'll keep selling while awaiting a ruling in a court case challenging the FDA's seizures.
A May 2009 evaluation of e-cigarettes by the FDA found that the two brands of e-cigarettes tested, Njoy and Smoking Everywhere, both released tobacco-generated cancer-causing chemicals and other impurities, including in one case very low levels of diethylene glycol, a toxic component of antifreeze.
E-cigs claiming to contain no nicotine were also found to contain very small amounts of nicotine.
E-cigarettes do not fall under the FDA's new jurisdiction over smoking, because they don't contain tobacco. But FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLAncey said the agency believes it should regulate e-cigarettes as a drug in a new product, just as it regulates other nicotine products like patches and nicotine inhalers, available only by prescription.
But approval of those other products required clinical studies showing they helped smokers quit, which e-cigarette makers say they are working on.
The agency also raised concerns that because the e-cigarettes are available in flavors like chocolate and mint - which it recently banned in regular cigarettes - they may increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use in young people.
Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. The National Cancer Institute says tobacco smoke contains more than 60 carcinogens, and quitting smoking has major health benefits. It also notes that nicotine causes addiction comparable to that of heroin or cocaine.
Because of the threat smoking poses, some medical professionals believe that eliminating tobacco would be a giant step forward.
Dr. Kevin Sherrin, president of the American Association of Public Health Physicians - who is not compensated by e-cigarette makers - says conventional cigarettes are "much more hazardous" than e-cigarettes.
To get more smokers to use them instead of cigarettes, he proposes that e-cigarettes be immediately regulated as tobacco products.
The use of e-cigarettes, he argues, could help save 400,000 Americans who die each year from tobacco-related illness, as well as 48,000 people who die from secondhand smoke, and 700 people who die in fires caused by smoking.
The FDA's DeLAncey says while levels of carcinogens may be far lower than from regular cigarettes, the long-term effect of using e-cigarettes is not known.
"Until they're safe and effective for their intended purpose," she said, "we can't say they're better for you than a cigarette."