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Smoking without Smoke 

Are e-cigarettes a safe way to escape the grip of tobacco?

click to enlarge Karen Sacco quit her two-packs-a-day habit using e-cigs. - STEPHEN SCHLANGE
  • Stephen Schlange
  • Karen Sacco quit her two-packs-a-day habit using e-cigs.

Josh Arleth started smoking when he was 16. It was the old peer-pressure story. A few friends were smoking, he joined in.

Soon, Arleth was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day — then, three packs a day. At about $8 a pack, that’s $750 a month. He knew it was an expensive habit. A deadly one, too. He knew he really should quit.

“I tried quitting probably six or seven times,” Arleth said. “I tried cold turkey, patches, gum.”

But within three weeks or less, he was back on the cigarettes.

“The biggest thing was just having the routine to calm yourself down,” Arleth says.

There’s the simple habit of having something in your mouth. And then there’s the social aspect. Smoking is an easy way to take a break at the office or make new friends outside.

“I wouldn’t go outside at the bar or outside during work if I was using gum or the patch,” Arleth says. He missed that.

Then, in August of 2009, one of his friends found an article about people in Switzerland using these things called electronic cigarettes. They look like almost like cylindrical whistles — double the size of a cigarette — and instead of cigarette smoke, water vapor is exhaled. A battery keeps the unit charged, an atomizer creates vapor, and a cartridge contains the synthesized nicotine.

Arleth, a gadget nerd, started searching for them. He found some from Britain on eBay and ordered a starter kit.

“I haven’t smoked a real cigarette since,” Arleth says.

One benefit was financial. The kit was $150 and lasted six months. Since he started using them, Arleth figures the e-cigarettes have saved him about $4,350. Another benefit was legal — so far, there are no laws preventing smoking e-cigarettes indoors.

And Arleth found he actually preferred the e-cigarette’s slightly different sensation.

“The e-cig is very smooth,” Arleth says. “I like the feeling more. It doesn’t burn my throat… The flavors you can get are amazing.” As he talks, he smokes a piña-colada-flavored e-cigarette.

The hype is everywhere. Claims, without scientific backing, are bandied about: It’s a “healthier alternative” to cigarettes with “none of the harmful chemicals.” On the syndicated medical talk show The Doctors, the panelists laugh and coo over the e-cigarettes, and — while they don’t recommend it for non-smokers — they say things like “it’s a lot better than consuming all that tar and carbon-dioxide” and “it’s sweet! Try it.”

But Christopher Zilar, program manager for the Spokane Regional Health Department, cautions: We don’t know much about electronic cigarettes yet.

If some medical professional — or advertisement, for that matter — says they can tell you the health impacts of e-cigarettes, he says, be skeptical.

There simply hasn’t been enough research yet, he says. Most nicotine studies have focused on the chemical as a component of tobacco, not in isolation.

Preliminary FDA studies, meanwhile, have detected levels of carcinogens in electronic cigarettes as well. According to the FDA, public health experts are worried that the nicotine in e-cigarettes could be a gateway drug to, well, regular old-fashioned cigarettes.

In September, the FDA sent warning letters to five electronic cigarette manufacturers for unsubstantiated claims and poor manufacturing practices.

“A company cannot claim that its drug can treat or mitigate a disease, such as nicotine addiction, unless the drug’s safety and effectiveness have been proven,” the FDA wrote in a press release. “Yet all five companies claim without FDA review of relevant evidence that the products help users quit smoking cigarettes.”

Though the FDA seeks to regulate e-cigarettes, right now they’re largely unregulated. That worries Zilar, who notes the level of nicotine could be much higher than advertised.

Though electronic cigarettes are legal to sell to minors, Zilar says, every Spokane vendor he’s talked to says it does not.

So Zilar decided to test that claim, sending out minors to attempt to purchase e-cigarettes. Nearly every singly local vendor, he says, sold to them anyway.

But Arleth says the new technology has already improved his quality of life.

“I get all the benefits of quitting smoking,” Arleth says. “I got taste and smell back, I stopped coughing up all the crap from my lungs, I could breathe. My clothes don’t smell like smoke and I don’t smell like smoke. “

If e-cigarettes help people quit tobacco, Zilar says, that’s great. But in addition to making sure e-cigarettes are safe, Zilar says he’d rather people consider them a stepping-stone.

"If a person currently smoking cigarettes switched to e-cigarettes, I would have two messages for them,” Zilar says. “Congratulations for quitting tobacco. And I would still encourage them to quit e-cigarettes eventually as well.”

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