RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Entrepreneurs are always trying to come up with new products for smokers: a nicotine lollipop or a bottle of Nico Water to provide a fix when smokers can't light up. Those products didn't pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration. And now, the agency is taking a closer look at the latest trend: electronic cigarettes. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: At the smoke-free Tyson's Corner Center in McLean, Virginia, Clarence Chatman puffs away on what appears to be a lit cigarette; little white clouds billow from his nostrils.

Mr. CLARENCE CHATMAN: That's funny. So even though smoke's coming out, you're not smoking.

ELLIOTT: He's trying a Liberty electronic cigarette, a stainless steel tube with a battery that heats up a nicotine solution. Chatman takes a drag of the resulting vapor.

Mr. CHATMAN: You have to pull on it real hard in order to get something out of it. And then you kind of feel the nicotine when you're letting the smoke out. But she said the smoke is actually water vapor. It's not smoke. So I could see getting in a lot of trouble: Hey! You can't smoke in here. But it's not smoke.

ELLIOTT: Chatman, a tourist from Rochester, New York, wants to quit after 35 years of smoking — sparked by this month's 62-cent per pack increase in the federal cigarette tax.

The budding electronic cigarette industry targets smokers like Chatman at mall kiosks and on the Internet.

(Soundbite of commercial)

ANNOUNCER: Are you ready for a change?

ELLIOTT: E-cigarettes, as they're called, come in a variety of flavors: coffee, chocolate, mint, apple — and yes, tobacco. But they don't contain tobacco.

(Soundbite of commercial)

ANNOUNCER: The Smoking Everywhere electronic cigarette looks like a traditional cigarette, feels like a cigarette, tastes like a cigarette, but it's not a cigarette. Fact: Smoking Everywhere electronic cigarette is the healthier way to smoke.

ELLIOTT: That claim raises a red flag for government regulators. FDA Spokeswoman Rita Chappelle:

Ms. RITA CHAPPELLE (FDA Spokeswoman): We're concerned about the potential for addiction to and abuse of these products. Some people may mistakenly perceive these products to be safer alternatives to conventional tobacco use.

ELLIOTT: The agency has opened an investigation and has refused e-cigarettes, e-cigars and e-pipes at the border because they're considered new drugs that require FDA approval.

But the industry questions the FDA's jurisdiction.

Walt Linscott is legal counsel for Smoking Everywhere, Inc.

Mr. WALT LINSCOTT (Legal Counsel, Smoking Everywhere, Inc.): Like a traditional cigarette, this product is not intended to produce a therapeutic effect. It is not a drug, if you will. This is an adult smoking experience and it should be thought of and regulated in that similar construct.

ELLIOTT: The Supreme Court has ruled the FDA does not have the authority to regulate tobacco. But a bill pending in Congress would give the agency that power and allow it to reduce nicotine levels. Linscott argues the e-cigarettes could be an effective bridge in that process.

Anti-smoking advocates wonder.

Mr. THOMAS GLYNN (American Cancer Society): I think there's a lot of possibilities, it's intriguing, but it needs to go through some rigorous testing before the public health community would feel comfortable with it.

ELLIOTT: Thomas Glynn with the American Cancer Society, says similar nicotine-only products haven't caught on, in part because smokers are so tied to the ritual of smoking. E-cigarettes could be different, Glynn says, if FDA-reviewed clinical studies show they are safe and effective.

Mr. GLYNN: Any product that we ingest, we'd like to see go through the Food and Drug Administration. I mean, we know more, to be honest, about what's in dog food and macaroni and cheese than we know what's in tobacco in this country. And there's no reason to introduce yet another product where we don't know what we're ingesting.

ELLIOTT: Back at the mall, Clarence Chatman says for now, he won't spend $60 on an electronic cigarette starter kit.

Mr. CHATMAN: You know, I like the idea of no smoke, and you can puff it wherever you want to. But I don't know, I was trying to weigh the cost.

ELLIOTT: It's not clear how much longer he'll have to weigh his options.

The FDA's investigation is ongoing, and the agency is under pressure from public health advocates - including New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg - to take electronic cigarettes off the market until they're proven safe.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Washington.

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