Opinions vary on electronic cigarettes; shops cropping up

PARKERSBURG – Opinions over the new electronic cigarettes, their use and potential long-term health effects are the subject of debate between health officials and e-cigarette advocates.

Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department officials say the long-term health effects of the battery-powered cigarettes are unknown.

In the last few months, three area e-cigarette businesses have opened their doors, in Belpre, Vienna and Marietta, and owners say the new form of cigarette is an alternative for those who want to stop smoking cigarettes.

E-cigarette advocates say the vapor exhaled from the battery-powered e-cigarettes does not contain the harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke.

But health department officials take another view.

“There are currently very few studies that have been conducted on e-cigarettes. It is expected that the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) will begin regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products in the near future,” said Jamie Jacobsen, regional tobacco prevention coordinator with the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. “The e-cigarettes have a vapor. There are very few studies, but some studies do show that e-cigarettes release chemicals similar to cigarettes in the vapor.”

Jacobsen said electronic cigarettes are covered by the health department’s Clean Indoor Air Regulation.

“They cannot be used in any public place. Many cities and states are beginning to add e-cigarettes to their regulations,” Jacobsen said.

The department’s original Indoor Clean Air Act was passed in 2005. In March of last year, the health department board revised its policy to clarify the use of e-cigarettes as part of the ordinance. According to the department records, the vote for the clarification was 6 in favor, 5 against.

The act covers Calhoun, Pleasants, Ritchie, Roane, Wirt and Wood counties.

The e-cigarettes can look similar to an actual cigarette; some have more of a designer look, featuring bright colors and different shapes. They can contain varying levels of nicotine.

According to the FDA, the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes has not been fully studied.

“Unfortunately people believe that e-cigarettes are beneficial in quitting smoking. The truth is that the e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, the addictive ingredient found in tobacco products. Even though a person quits smoking, he or she will likely still be using the e-cigarette to satisfy the nicotine addiction,” Jacobsen said.

Tonya Hicks, who along with her husband owns one of the new e-cigarette businesses, notes while the amount of nicotine in the product can vary, the vapor that is exhaled is more like a steam vapor and is not “second-hand smoke” like from a cigarette.

“It’s an alternative to smoking, that’s what a lot of our customers are using it for,” she said.

“They are not regulated by the FDA yet, but every product that is in the electronic cigarettes is FDA-grade. I have MSD (Material Safety Data) sheets for every ingredient which is listed on every bottle of the product used in the e-cigarettes,” Hicks said.

The shop allows customers to sample the flavors available for the e-cigarettes that include candy flavored, menthol, fruit and others.

“We have over 40 flavors here,” Hicks said.

She said customers can get the e-cigarette product without any nicotine in it.

Hicks noted the products cost less than regular cigarettes and the e-cigarettes run on a rechargeable battery. An atomizer vaporizes the solution and a cartridge filled with liquid.

A recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the use of e-cigarettes among Americans has quadrupled from 2009 to 2010, resulting in nearly 3 million adult users.

According to the Tobacco Control and Legal Consortium sales of e-cigarettes in the U.S. is projected to reach $1.7 billion in 2013. Some Wall Street analysts speculate sales of e-cigarettes might even overtake those of traditional cigarettes within the next 10 years.

Hicks said some of her shop’s customers include individuals who have never smoked and just want to try the new e-cigarettes.

According to the National Association of Local Boards of Health, “currently little scientific evidence is available to illustrate that electronic cigarettes are effective cessation devices.”

The Boards of Health position statement on the subject notes that other smoking cessation products such as nicotine gum and nicotine replacement therapies are regulated.

“The safety of the product is also dependent on the amount of nicotine inhaled in each puff and the quality/components of the cartridge,” according to the NALBH.

Hicks said she used to smoke cigarettes, she’s been off them for two years now. She uses e-cigarettes.

“It helped me get off the cigarettes, and I feel a lot better,” she said.

“It’s an option for some of these individuals who have tried everything else, the gum, the patches, and going cold turkey and it just didn’t work,” Hicks said.

According to the Smoke Free Initiative of West Virginia, 15 West Virginia counties mention a ban on vaping e-cigarettes in public places.