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The federal government is stepping up its warnings on the latest smoking trend: electronic cigarettes. They're battery-powered tubes that deliver a nicotine vapor instead of burned tobacco smoke. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that electronic cigarettes are illegal because they haven't been cleared by regulators.

But as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, so-called e-cigarettes are still for sale.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Electronic cigarettes imported from China have grown in popularity in the last several years, and that has federal regulators concerned, in part because so little is known about what's in them.

Preliminary tests by the FDA showed that e-cigarettes contain some of the same dangerous cancer-causing chemicals that traditional cigarettes do, although at lower levels. The samples also reveal quality control issues.

FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein says consumers should beware.

Dr. JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN (Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration): Some products, which are marketed as exactly the same, have wildly variable amounts of nicotine in them. One of the products has a poison known as diethylene glycol. And what that indicates is that we don't really know much at all about how these things are produced.

ELLIOTT: Sharfstein says electronic cigarettes are subject to FDA approval as a drug or medical device, much like nicotine patches, gum and inhalers. The government has blocked e-cigarettes at the border, but stopped short of closing down domestic retailers. That means smokers can still find $40 to $60 starter kits at travel centers, mall kiosks and online.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: The Smoking Everywhere electronic cigarette looks like a traditional cigarette, feels like a cigarette, tastes like a cigarette. But it's not a cigarette, it's so much more.

ELLIOTT: Smoking Everywhere is one of two major importers of electronic cigarettes, cigars and pipes. The industry has sued the FDA, claiming it should not be regulated like a drug. Despite marketing claims online, Smoking Everywhere attorney Walt Linscott says the e-cigarette is a tobacco product and should be regulated as such.

Mr. WALT LINSCOTT (Attorney, Smoking Everywhere Inc.): It is a cigarette. And cigarettes, inherent by their design and nature, are not safe as that would be used with respect to comparing it to a drug, which is designed to have a safe and effective therapeutic effect.

ELLIOTT: But as the company engages in a legal battle with the government, its very own telemarketers could be presenting a different picture to consumers. I received a sales pitch from Smoking Everywhere. A representative told me the product had been approved as safe by the FDA. Attorney Linscott says it was a mistake that has been corrected.

The general confusion over whether they're safe prompted Oregon to get two travel centers to stop selling e-cigarettes in that state. They've been banned by Israel, Australia, Canada and Mexico.

Now, anti-smoking advocates like John Banzhaf with Action on Smoking and Health, are putting pressure on the FDA to ban the products in the U.S.

Professor JOHN BANZHAF (Public Interest Law, George Washington University; Executive Director, Action on Smoking and Health): If nothing is done to stop these and other similar products from being thrown on the market without any testing, without any guarantees, without disclosure or testing of ingredients, it basically opens the market to having smokers serve as guinea pigs.

ELLIOTT: There is a split in the public health community over this question. It's similar to the abstinence-only debate in sex education: whether to advocate that smokers switch to less harmful products, even if they're not completely safe.

Boston University Public Health professor, Michael Siegel, says the FDA's recent consumer warning was misleading because the agency found low levels of carcinogens in e-cigarettes.

Professor MICHAEL SIEGEL (School of Public Health, Boston University): That it's comparable to what is present in nicotine replacement products, which are on the market. And, in fact, if you look at the actual levels of the carcinogens in electronic cigarettes, they're about 1,400 times lower than in Marlboros.

ELLIOTT: But the FDA's Joshua Sharfstein says it's premature to say they're safer until regulators know what's in them.

Dr. SHARFSTEIN: It may be that these products could help some people quit smoking. In which case, the manufacturers have the opportunity to come to the FDA and demonstrate that with data. It's their obligation to prove that in order to market it to the American people.

ELLIOTT: A Washington, D.C., federal judge holds a hearing later this month to determine just what their obligation is.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

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