Millions of smokers are turning to e-cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. Sam Tarasowsky, a longtime smoker, began using e-cigarettes six months ago, after numerous other attempts to quit.
"I've been smoking since about junior year of high school and finally quit earlier this year," Tarasowsky said.
Now he's vaping. That is what users of e-cigs, short for electronic cigarettes, call it when they take a puff. The 21-year-old college senior noticed a big difference.
"My voice has been getting clear," said Tarasowsky. "My throat has felt ten times better."
Many believe the electronic devices are healthier, but there is growing concern about what's in e-cigs and whether the candy-like flavors appeal to kids.
Everything about them looks like a real cigarette, except the battery-operated devices heat up a nicotine liquid that's inhaled as an odorless vapor. It can be recharged with a USB port. An estimated 2.5 million people now use e-cigarettes, growing to a billion dollar industry in the next few years.
"You're inhaling, exhaling, holding it up to your mouth like a regular cigarette, but you're blowing out what is vapor," said John Healy, President of Blu Ecigs, one of the top manufacturers of electronic cigarettes.
But John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor at George Washington University, warns people shouldn't be fooled.
"We know it contains nicotine, which is a deadly addictive drug … It also contains a respiratory irritant, and we don't know what the effect of long term exposure will be," Banzhaf said.
An FDA analysis discovered known carcinogens and toxic chemicals in some e-cigs. Other studies showed e-cigs cause respiratory problems and may expel dangerous compounds in the vapor.
Manufacturers cite their own studies which conclude e-cigs are a much safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
"I think they're safer," Healy said.
But he went on to say that "unfortunately in today's world, you have to back up a lot of those assumptions and those claims under an FDA realm and I think we'll do that."
The FDA has significant concerns about the candy-like flavors. It has warned that the flavorings are enticing to kids.
"The FDA's experts themselves have said there is a real concern that kids will use these e-cigarettes like candy cigarettes on steroids," Banzhaf said.
Blu Ecigs, which also comes in a variety of flavors, denies targeting kids and says e-cigs are for adults only.
"They can't show me at what age you stop liking flavors," said Healy.
A handful of states, including Maryland, restrict sales to minors. Many companies like Blu Ecigs follow a similar policy. With plenty of smokers, they don't need to sell to kids.
"There are 45 million smokers in America alone, so we've barely scratched the surface of that. This product is at its core made for smokers," Healy said emphatically.
Benjy Finkel sells the e-cig brand Eonsmoke to stores around the University of Maryland campus, in flavors like mango and strawberry.
"It's crazy how big it's getting. All over campus. Sororities, fraternities all over campus they're smoking these things," said Finkel, another University of Maryland student.
Like traditional cigarettes, Finkel knows some high school kids are using e-cigs despite efforts to prevent it.
"They smoke electronic cigarettes at the back of detention, in the class maybe, when the teacher isn't looking and the teacher can't really smell it," Finkel said.
The FDA is expected to weigh in April. An agency spokesman said in a statement sent to FOX 5: "FDA intends to propose regulation that would extend the agency's ‘tobacco product' authorities … further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes."
Industry leaders support regulation, but not the same extent as cigarettes. In the meantime, companies must walk a fine line careful not to make medical claims, according to Bryan Haynes, an attorney with ties to the e-cig industry.
"The FDA has said e-cigarettes cannot market their product as more healthful that regular cigarettes," said Hayes.
In 2010, the FDA sent warning letters to five e-cig companies for various violations, including unsubstantiated claims. But Sam Tarasowsky doesn't need convincing.
"Anything is better than that ashtray taste in your mouth," he said.
Now he can swim and run without losing his breath. He smokes inside and doesn't miss huddling with other smokers out in the cold.
The price of e-cigarettes has come down, making them more affordable. Refills sell for only $2 to $3.
There are even "zero nicotine" flavors for those who want to "vape," but without the nicotine.
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