If you ask him, Cameron Kelly will tell you that he is not a smoker even as he blows a white cloud from his nose and mouth. But, as the cloud wafts above him there is no hot, bitter smell of tobacco. Instead, a faint scent reminiscent of strawberry flavored bubble gum hangs in the air. Kelly may not smoke, but he does vape.
"It mimics the exact feel of what we call a throat hit and the visual of smoking a cigarette," said Kelly.
Kelly smoked cigarettes for 18 years. Last year, he put down what he calls "the analogues" and started using an e-cigarette. Now, he's a general manager for SmokeCignals, an e-cigarette store that sells everything a vaper- someone who uses e-cigarettes- needs, including their own house mixed liquid nicotine concoctions. One small bottle of the juice equals five to seven packs of cigarettes.
E-Cigarettes work by heating a liquid nicotine mixture, vaporizing it so it can then be inhaled and exhaled just like a traditional cigarette. Unlike a cigarette, an e-cig does not contain tobacco or other harmful additives.
Nicotine in its purest form is poisonous. However, doctors believe it is actually the other carcinogens found in cigarettes and tobacco that cause cancer to develop.
E-Cigarettes still contain carcinogens, although much fewer.
"You're not taking in the four thousands chemicals that are in cigarettes. You're taking in four: Nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and your food grade flavoring," said Kelly.
With e-cigarettes has emerged a whole vaping subculture. Kelly says some customers use the product to quit smoking, while others turn it into a hobby, even building their own custom devices.
Kelly says he doesn't usually run into trouble when vaping in public. He says most people are curious at how it works. In areas where there are smoking bans, e-cigarettes seem to fall in a gray area. Kelly recommends asking someone in charge about their policy before vaping.
However the question remains: are e-cigarettes a safe alternative to smoking?
"The answer is, we don't know how safe these cigarettes are," said oncology and hematology specialist Dr. Vince Cataldo.
Because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco and are not considered medicinal like nicotine patches or gum, there is little regulation in the industry. Currently, there are no laws requiring a safety standard or protection against minors purchasing e-cigarettes. With flavors like strawberry and grape, doctors worry that the product may appeal to kids and lead them to using the real thing.
Some stores, like SmokeCignals, refuse to sell their products to anyone under 18 and set their own in-house quality regulations. Kelly says he expects the F.D.A. to begin issuing safety regulations soon and that his store is ready to comply. He also believes those regulations could help keep less reputable sellers in line.
"We all started doing this because we wanted to quit smoking. We don't want to start a new trend," said Kelly.
While SmokeCignals does not claim that using e-cigarettes is a smoking cessation program, Kelly says he can't deny how many customers say the product has helped them quit.
However, Cataldo says he and other practitioners need more evidence that the product is safe for long term use.
"We need to have some degree of safety data that is offered to us in order to make a statement on whether or not this is a safe delivery system for nicotine," said Cataldo.
Currently the F.D.A. has no recommendation on e-cigarettes, saying more research and data is needed. However, there are on-going efforts to create more industry safety standards.
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