E-cigs look, act and feel like real ones - but no tobacco smoke
TAMPA - Could you imagine James Bond stirring his martini at an exotic casino while waiting for the battery to charge his electronic cigarette? Electronic cigarette? Yes, the "smokeless cigarette" is hitting the market, promising devoted smokers a way to get a puff of nicotine and look, act and feel like they're smoking, but without burning tobacco. The device makes the classic pickup line "Got a light?" go the way of secondhand smoke.And it raises questions about regulation and use. Although the battery-powered cigs don't produce tobacco smoke, should users be banned from "vaping" in restaurants and airplanes? Just where can you vape, as the lingo calls vapor inhaling? That's a sticky point, and the etiquette is far from settled. For anyone buying e-cigs, consider yourself a bit illicit. E-cigarettes inhabit a legal gray area. The Food and Drug Administration recently blocked some e-cig imports, and officials want to halt sales. At least three makers sell them online, and one maker sells in Tampa malls. Nicotine and all things tobacco are hot issues. In June, the FDA gained new authority to regulate tobacco products. Taxes on a variety of tobacco goods are going up, and Florida added an additional $1 tax on cigarette packs Wednesday. President Barack Obama recently vented about his struggle to quit smoking, saying he doesn't smoke in front of his kids, "but there are times I mess up." Enter the electronic cigarette companies, promising a device that looks, feels and tastes like a cigarette. Inside, most models have a battery-powered vaporizer that turns a nicotine and tobacco-flavored propylene glycol gel into a vapor for the user to inhale. With some models, the vapor they exhale resembles smoke, though manufacturers claim it doesn't smell like or linger as long as tobacco smoke. Starter kits cost $60 to $120, depending on the brand, plus the cost of cartridges, which come in flavors including light, menthol, cherry and vivid vanilla. The NJoy electronic cigarette company tells users, "Do not be surprised when people ask about you smoking NJoy. After all, to the casual observer, using NJoy creates the appearance of tobacco smoking." Jason Healy, president of the e-cigarette company Blu, said he regularly uses his product on airlines, including Quantas, American Airlines and Southwest. "I just show it to the flight attendants, explain it, and they're usually fine," Healy said. Since launching online sales in April, Blu, based in Charlotte, N.C., has sold more than 22,000 starter kits. That kind of success bothers anti-smoking advocates. "They're just another way the tobacco industry has found to target addicts for a profit," said Gary Stein, tobacco programs coordinator for the Hillsborough County Health Department. Florida tobacco law does not address electronic cigarettes, so they could be used in places where cigarettes aren't allowed, such as restaurants, Stein said. This year, the FDA blocked some imports of the devices from China, citing drug laws. Officially, the FDA considers them a drug delivery device and wants them to undergo scientific vetting before they could be sold in the United States, said Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the FDA. The FDA regulates smoking-cessation devices, such as patches, so some e-cigarette makers are careful to market their devices only as substitutes for cigarettes, not quitting aides. Mattew Steingraber, founder of the Tarpon Springs-based White Cloud e-cigarette company, said he wants federal law to clear up the matter because he would prefer not to operate in a "gray area." In the meantime, he has opened up kiosks in a half-dozen area malls. The NJoy e-cigarette company sells refill cartridges in stores such as Costco and freeway rest stops, including TravelCenters of America and Pilot. A trade association of e-cigarette makers claims $100 million in annual sales. On a social level, e-cig users face other obstacles. Tobacco-free or not, several places across Tampa don't want the devices around. "I don't see them going into restaurants, period," said Jessica Raia-Long, chef and co-owner of the NoHo Bistro gourmet restaurant in Tampa. "For a bar, fine, that's what they're for. But if there's any scent to them at all, it would eventually permeate everything and bother people. I'd have to light candles and incense to cover it up." University Community Hospital considers them cigarettes, said spokeswoman Phoebe Ochman, and would kick out anyone using them. In contrast, Chris Bjarkman fires up his e-cigarette close to the New Port Richey hospitals he frequents as a firefighter in Pasco County. A former two-pack a day Marlboro Red smoker, Bjarkman said, "I see patients and doctors out there having to smoke way out on the sidewalk - not me." Before going to the Trop for a Rays game, users might want to consider the team's stance on e-cigs. There isn't an official one yet, but basic manners and comfort of other fans holds sway, says spokesman Rick Vaughn. "We would look to the [sports] industry to help standardize the rules regarding in-stadium use," he said. Southwest Airlines officials toyed with allowing e-cigarettes on planes and listened to presentations two years ago by at least one e-cigarette maker hoping the airline would allow them. Southwest decided on a policy against them, said spokeswoman Marlee McInnis. "We have made it clear we do not accept them," she said. "We definitely don't want people concerned about them."
Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919.
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