E-Cigarettes: A Nearly $2bn Industry, A Regulatory Wild West

Electronic cigarettes are popping up in more and more stores around the country and consumers are "vaping" in bars and restaurants with gusto. Sales of the devices are expected to reach nearly $2 billion this year. Until now, the top tobacco companies have been out of the game, but both Altria, which owns Phillip Morris, and R.J. Reynolds are now launching their own brands. Back in 2009, the FDA warned that e-cigarettes could pose health risks. This month, the agency is expected to release a set of proposed regulations on the devices.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour trying to understand the soaring popularity of electronic cigarettes. Anecdotally, you'll hear ex-smokers say e-cigarettes are a godsend that helped them quit tobacco.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I found these and I was like, wow, that'll get me there. I'll be OK.

BLOCK: Smoking is, after all, the leading cause of preventable illness and death in this country, responsible for about half a million deaths each years. But are E-cigarettes a solution or part of the same problem? Tobacco watchdogs warn that e-cigarettes are addictive and simple perpetuate the epidemic and little is known about the potential health effects.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, I think e-cigarettes today are the triumph of wishful thinking over data.

BLOCK: For the uninitiated, an e-cigarette is a device that looks like a regular cigarette. It uses a battery to heat and vaporize a liquid solution. It might have an LED at the end that lights up to simulate burning. It doesn't contain tobacco, but it does have nicotine and the e-cigarette brings with it a new vocabulary.

People who use them are vapors and they're vaping. E-cigarettes also lead to a retro-nym by way of contrast, traditional cigarettes, the kind with tobacco are now called burn cigarettes or analog or combustible cigarettes. If you want to find out how wildly popular e-cigarettes have become, drop in at Zelick's Tobacco in Miami Beach.

JOSH GIMELSTEIN: Electronic cigarettes, it's the hottest thing in the market right now.

BLOCK: Josh Gimelstein is the manager.

GIMELSTEIN: We carry Blu, Gamucci, we carry Premier Hookah, EZ Cigs by Philip and Kings.

BLOCK: This store has been in business for 53 year and e-cigarettes are transforming the market.

GIMELSTEIN: I see that it's growing every single day. More and more people are coming in and asking about it. Don't forget they can also smoke this indoors. As of yet, there's been no laws changing that, so they love it.

BLOCK: Now, some states and cities has extended local smoke-free laws to e-cigarettes, but on the federal level because they're not being marketed as smoking cessation devices, they're not regulated as such and the Food and Drug Administration doesn't yet regulate them as tobacco products. That will change soon, but for now, it means there are no limits on advertising.

No national ban on sales to minors, no requirement to list the ingredients. And sales of e-cigarettes have skyrocketed. They're expected to more than double this year, approaching $2 billion by year's end.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You know what the most amazing thing about this cigarette is...

FOREIGNER: (Singing) It feels like the first time...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It isn't one.

BLOCK: There are hundreds of brands and the big tobacco companies are all in on e-cigarettes, Altria, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, they see a huge growth market. So the people who brought you Marlboro, Camel and Newport are now pushing the brands, MarkTen, Vuse and Blu. And they're going after the market full throttle with TV ads and celebrity.

JENNY MCCARTHY: Hey, I'm Jenny McCarthy. You know, being single has its perks, but when it comes to smoking, smelling like an ashtray is not the ideal aphrodisiac.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's time smoking changed forever. Welcome to Views.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We're all adults here. It's time we take our freedom back.

STANTON GLANTZ: The marketing that you're seeing in these cigarettes, it's the Wild West. It's like cigarette marketing in the '50s.

BLOCK: Stanton Glantz directs the Center For Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco.

GLANTZ: They're making health claims. They're using celebrities, movies, television. It's just like getting into a time machine.

BLOCK: Remember, cigarette ads on TV have been banned for more than 40 years, but in the absence of regulation, the e-cigarette market is a free-for-all. In half the states, children can legally buy them. They'll find flavors that include cotton candy, tutti-frutti, gummy bear and cherry crush. Jesse Gaddis is the CEO of an indie e-cigarette company based in Brooklyn called Bedford Slims.

JESSE GADDIS: The experience is, you know, you kind of hear this crackling sound and you feel this warm vapor kind of flowing into your mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING NOISE)

BLOCK: Gaddis explains the e-cigarette that he is vaping has two components, a rechargeable battery and a vaporizer with a heating element and the key ingredient inside.

GADDIS: Electronic cigarettes juice or e-juice as it's known commonly.

BLOCK: That e-juice contains among other things, a humectant such as vegetable glycerin or the chemical propylene glycol, also nicotine and flavorings. Bedford Slims flavors include traditional tobacco, menthol, cloves and root beer.

GADDIS: You get these flavors and immediately you start the feel of nicotine sensation just like you would with a regular cigarette. When you breathe out or, you know, expel the vapor, it's a very light cloud or mist and it dissipates very quickly.

BLOCK: Gaddis is presenting sales for his company of a million dollars this year, most of it online. So who's buying? Well, Gaddis claims a lot of e-cigarette customers are heavy smokers who are trying to quit. Count Brian Congleton in that number.

BRIAN CONGLETON: Yeah, 20 plus years, two packs a day at least, all brands, started with Winston, then Marlboro for most, Camel in between there a little while.

BLOCK: We found Brian vaping at a bar here in Washington, D.C. He says e-cigarettes have helped him kick his heavy tobacco habit.

CONGLETON: If you think that smoking this fake-looking electronic cigarettes is in any way cool, it's not. It's got ridiculous lights on the end of it, sometimes blink, it looks like Rudolph's nose. The only people that go to these are drawn to these because they legitimately want to quit smoking.

BLOCK: So if you're substituting an e-cigarette for a burn cigarette, is that a good thing? Well, you're avoiding hundreds of the cancer-causing toxins in tobacco cigarettes. Dr. Tim McAfee directs the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and he sees a big potential upside.

TIM MCAFEE: Burn cigarettes, combusted cigarettes are an obsolete product. It makes no point for a company to manufacture one form of a product that we know eventually kills half of the users of that product if they simultaneously are offering another product that doesn't do that.

BLOCK: But Stanton Glantz with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education says, OK, they're safer. So what?

GLANTZ: It really comes down to the question of what should you be comparing them to. There's no question that using an e-cigarette is less dangerous than smoking a cigarette, but smoking a cigarette is wildly dangerous.

BLOCK: Glantz says because e-cigarettes aren't yet regulated by the FDA, we don't know exactly what's in them or how dangerous they are. And while some e-cigarette promoters claim the product helps people quit smoking, health advocates have doubts. Tim McAfee with the CDC fears e-cigarettes will simply prolong the smoking epidemic by encouraging what's called dual use. In other words, people won't quit, they'll use both. They'll smoke cigarettes where they can, vape e-cigarettes where they can't.

MCAFEE: Dual use is the 800-pound gorilla in this situation.

BLOCK: And there's another huge concern. Tim McAfee worries that all those flavors and sexy ads are especially seductive for young people. A recent CDC study shows the percentage of middle and high school students who've tried e-cigarettes more than doubled in just one year.

MCAFEE: This renormalizes something that looks about 95 percent the same as smoking, so that, especially children and young adults, will become more prone to think that it's normal for somebody to be, you know, sucking chemicals out of a white tube.

BLOCK: He fears e-cigarettes could become a dangerous gateway to tobacco cigarettes. The FDA is expected to propose rules on e-cigarettes soon under the 2009 tobacco control act. They could regulate how and where they're sold and whether minors can buy them. They could also regulate ingredients and flavorings.

As for television ads, well, it's unclear which federal agency would have to impose a ban. The e-cigarette industry is spending millions lobbying on this, arguing that their product should not be treated the same as traditional cigarettes.

Joe Murillo is president and general manager of Newmark, part of the big tobacco company Altria. Murillo's group is starting to market an e-cigarette called the MarkTen. And his message for regulators is this.

JOE MURILLO: Smoking is not vaping and vaping is not smoking, and that seems obvious. But despite the popular name, an electronic cigarette is not a cigarette. You are not burning tobacco. There is no odor. So what I would urge everyone - including the public health and regulators, just like consumers - is to think about this for what it is not for what it's not.

BLOCK: So even if motion is same, it looks like cigarette, you're exhaling something that looks like smoke, there's a key distinction there.

MURILLO: Yeah, it's not. It's not smoke.

BLOCK: Look for those proposed FDA regulations to come as soon as this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.