JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Smoking used to be sexy. Anyone knows that. Look at "Mad Men" or Bogart. Well, that was then. Americans are buying fewer cigarettes these days. And American tobacco companies released their first quarter earnings this week. Unsurprisingly, cigarette sales are down from last year.

But that doesn't mean tobacco companies aren't still profitable. Smoke-free products like e-cigarettes are marketed as a less harmful alternative. And for now, at least, you can puff them indoors. They're for modern "Mad Men" and Bogarts. Associated Press reporter Michael Felberbaum explains exactly what an e-cigarette is.

MICHAEL FELBERBAUM: It's an electronic device that uses a battery, and it heats a liquid nicotine solution that users then inhale like they would a traditional cigarette.

LYDEN: You might have already seen these for sale at your local drugstore. So have all the major tobacco companies.

FELBERBAUM: As of very recently, all of the top tobacco companies have announced plans or already have an electronic cigarette on the market.

LYDEN: Altria, the company that brought you the Marlboro Man, is the last American tobacco company to say that they plan to release an e-cig later this year. They're behind Lorillard Inc. who purchased the e-cigarette maker Blu last year. Here's actor Stephen Dorff in a Blu ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLU AD)

STEPHEN DORFF: With Blu, you could smoke at a basketball game if you want to. And how about not having to go outside every 10 minutes when you're in a bar with your friends. The point is you can smoke Blu virtually anywhere. We're all adults here. It's time we take our freedom back.

LYDEN: The Blu Man doesn't have quite the Marlboro man ring to it, I guess, but freedom to puff an e-cigarette indoors might sound great to smokers sick of looking like aging hoodlums in doorways. Still, e-cigarette fans shouldn't necessarily get used to it. Local governments are already taking steps to limit e-smoking in places where traditional smoking is banned. And reporter Michael Felberbaum says advertising on TV might be a short-lived privilege as well.

FELBERBAUM: The FDA has said that it plans to assert regulatory authority over electronic cigarettes. And that could lead to them being regulated in the same way as cigarettes as far as marketing is concerned.

LYDEN: The FDA warned that more research needs to be done on the health risks of inhaling liquid nicotine. That hasn't stopped people calling them an effective way to quit smoking altogether. Actress Katherine Heigl even puffed one on the "Late Show with David Letterman" a couple years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

KATHERINE HEIGL: So I've tried everything. I did the patch. I did the gum. I did the Chantix twice. Now I do the electronic cigarette.

DAVID LETTERMAN: I've, you know, I've never heard of this, never seen this, don't know what that is.

LYDEN: Again, Michael Felberbaum.

FELBERBAUM: The companies are not allowed to market them as smoking cessation devices because that would put them in the category of other nicotine replacement products that are regulated by the FDA right now such as nicotine gum and patches.

LYDEN: For now, e-cigarette smokers can pretty much puff away, and they are. Industry experts say that U.S. sales could even reach a billion dollars this year.

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