Popularity of "e-cigs" hot topic in smoking debate

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Electronic cigarettes seem to be growing in popularity in Indiana.

A west Indianapolis store reports explosive growth and many Hoosiers say they are using "e-cigs" to help them stop smoking cigarettes. But not everyone is sold on the products or the practice of "vaping."

As a popular DJ In nightclubs, Justin Drake no longer smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. Instead, he is "vaping" on electronic cigarettes and has not touched a cigarette in four months. Drake uses a $35 vapor pen that includes liquid and chargers. He purchases additional bottles of liquids for $15. Drake says switching to the "e-cig" has no withdrawal effects.

"I've tried to stop (smoking) before and it's very difficult habit to break. With this, I've switched. It helps me stop. The only way you're going to stop is if you want to. But there's levels to this. You start off at a higher level and you wean yourself down," said Drake. "It works the same way as the patch, but it gives you the physical feeling of still smoking. So it's easier for me to quit that way. There's no smoke smell. It's not smoke. It's a vapor. Thirty percent of the people I see in nightclubs are using them now."

It is the same new habit for a busy mom on the south side of Indianapolis. Instead of smoking cigarettes every day, Rachel McComas is now using an "e-cig."

"It's basically taking the place of smoking. Cigarettes are terrible for you," said McComas. "They have all these chemicals in there. The only thing this is nicotine. It's just the vapor that you're inhaling and it's coming out. It's not smoke or anything like that."

McComas says she is saving $12 a day on cigarettes and contends the "e-cig" gives her the similar feeling in her chest that she experienced when smoking cigarettes.

"When you get the patch, you're getting the nicotine but you don't have that inhalation or something in your hand that a lot of people want. So, this was perfect," said McComas.

By now, Hoosiers have seen the signs around town and the ads on television. The marketing seems be working, particularly since Indiana's smoking ban went into effect. Many of the products are exploding in popularity. Business is booming at the Indy Vapor Shop.

"Revenue is probably up 200% in the last 17 months or so," said Mike Cline, who is the owner and a customer. He used to smoke two packs a day and survived two heart attacks. But now he is "vaping" and reducing his nicotine intake.

"Since this doesn't have the chemicals and the tar that is in tobacco in a cigarette, I'm not getting those bad things in my body. I'm basically getting nicotine flavoring and food coloring. It's not doing the harm. I, like most smokers, like the act of vaping. The act of quote and quote smoking," said Cline.

But not everyone is sold on "e-cigs."

"We know very little about them, so that's why we're hesitant to really promote these products or anything like that," said Lindsay Grace with the American Lung Association. "There's been very little testing done by the FDA on these products. When they did test them, they did find some carcinogens in the actual cartridges themselves. A lot of times they're manufactured in China, not here in the United States. They have very lax rules on manufacturing. Every product can contain a different level of nicotine even in products that are labeled non-nicotine. We've actually found nicotine in those devices. We need a lot more regulation and a lot more study on these products before we move forward."

Grace says people cannot use the "e-cigs" to get around the city's smoking ban.

"In Indianapolis, the ordinance went into effect of June of last year (2012) which prohibits smoking in most indoor workplaces in Indianapolis. Restaurants, bars, taverns. In that, along with smoking cigarettes being prohibited, you cannot use e-cigarettes as well," said Grace. "Local laws across Indiana also prohibit the use of these products, including Columbus, Terre Haute, Evansville, Zionsville."

Beginning July 1, minors under the age of 18 will not be able to purchase the electronic cigarette products in Indiana.

"We worked this year at the General Assembly that e-cigarettes are off-limits to minors. There's no federal regulation on these products yet. Right now, you could walk into a store and be a minor, under the age of 18 could purchase these products," said Grace.

Drake says the "e-cig" he uses is better than cigarettes.

"If you're already smoking, you're putting 5,000 different chemicals into your body anyway," said Drake. "I know the products that I use with the liquid are all food-grade stuff. It comes labeled and says what's in it. Using this versus smoking regular cigarettes - I feel a million times better. I notice a big change in being able to breathe better. Having more energy. I haven't had as many headaches."

McComas says her health has also improved since she began "vaping" and she no longer worries about lighting up with her young daughter Leighella around.

"She's not going to inhale any smoke. It's just vapors that are going to go in the air," said McComas. "I feel like if I actually go outside and do something, walk around or play with her, I don't get out of breath as easy. I don't feel like my breath stinks all the time. I don't have to worry if I'm in people's face."

Opponents of "e-cigs" contend there have not been any long-term studies on the people who use the products.

"We don't know someone quitting these products ten years from now, what those health effects are going to be due to these products," said Grace. "They're not an FDA approved device for cessation. So, we really like to warn the public about these products and the potential dangers.

"Until we know more, we are saying this is not an effective or safer method to quit smoking and only use the FDA approved methods which are proven safe and proven the most effective."