You're in a nice restaurant when you look up from your menu and see a fashionably dressed young woman at the next table puffing away on a cigarette. Horrors! Smoking in a restaurant, in this day and age, in violation of who knows how many regulations and ordinances?
But on closer examination you see she is not smoking but “vaping,” enjoying most of the pleasures of smoking without breaking any rules – at least, not yet. That cigarette in her hand is actually an electronic cigarette, an e-cigarette. The smoke is actually water vapor, used to deliver flavored nicotine.
A growing number of smokers are giving up tobacco for e-cigarettes and for the most part, they're not using them as a way to stop their tobacco habit.
In fact, e-cigarette makers take great pains not to promote these devices as smoking-cessation aids. Were they to do so the products would be considered medicine and fall under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration. (FDA).
Alternative to tobacco
Instead, consumers are embracing e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes. They get the same hit of nicotine but avoid the thousands of chemicals found in cigarette smoke.
Electronic Cigarettes Inc. maintains a Facebook page where customers can post comments.
“I just celebrated my 11th month as a non-smoker and I have VaporKing E-Cigs to thank for that,” a customer named Anne wrote.
Note that she's been vaping for nearly a year and apparently doesn't miss cigarettes. It also sounds like she has no intention of kicking the vaping habit anytime soon.
That's what makes e-cigarettes such a booming business. Consumers aren't using them for a few months to ween themselves from cigarettes, then ending their use of the product. They enjoy vaping and apparently plan to keep doing it. After all, vaping is a lot cheaper than smoking.
“I just reordered the Vapor King after losing mine in a move,” a customer named Patrick posted on the Electronic Cigarettes Facebook page. “Ill be paying off my Camaro with the savings and funding my new hobbies!”
He's not exaggerating. A pack of cigarettes can be more than $6 these days, thanks to the heavy federal and state taxes that are designed to discourage smoking. But these taxes also provide a significant revenue stream for governments. At least, until now.
A consumer who once smoked a pack of cigarettes a day but switches to e-cigarettes can literally save thousands of dollars a year. Governments, meanwhile, stand to lose billions.
Another reason smokers are gladly becoming vapers is they are no longer social outcasts, huddled in the cold outside a building getting a quick smoke. With e-cigarettes they can enjoy the ritual of smoking, along with the nicotine rush, in a restaurant, bar or other public place.
All of this has not escaped the notice of health advocates and anti-smoking groups, who are only now grappling with this new phenomenon. Some have raised questions about the health effects of vaping.
“The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products and how they are marketed to the public,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said recently.
She expressed concern that e-cigarettes can increase nicotine addiction among young people and may lead kids to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes. The World Health Organization said in 2008 that there's no evidence that e-cigarettes are harmless, but as yet, no solid evidence that they cause harm.
If, in the future, anti-smoking groups present studies suggesting e-cigarettes are harmful, you can expect vapers to present their own research that suggests they aren't.
Vapers have their own organization, the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association (CASAA), which recently began raising money to fund health reseach on e-cigarettes. It doesn't plan to sit by while the same curbs that were placed incrementally on tobacco are placed on e-cigarettes.
“CASAA will continue to be the leader in political actions to stop state and local anti-THR in the USA, and increasingly we are taking political action at the federal level,” the group said in a statement. “We will also continue to provide education internationally through our websites and other activities.”
Vapers appear to be passionate on the subject. When ConsumerAffairs recently reported on an anti-smoking group's attack on e-cigarettes, it produced a number of reader comments in defense of e-cigarettes.
“Find out how many people have quit smoking with these,” a reader named Jason posted. “Find out how many lives have been saved by electronic cigarettes. Tell people how well other smoking cessation devices work.”
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that about 21% of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used e-cigarettes in 2011, compared with about 10 percent in 2010.
Overall, about six percent of all adults have tried e-cigarettes, with estimates nearly doubling from 2010. The study is the first to report changes in awareness and use of e-cigarettes between 2010 and 2011.
While the jury is still out in the U.S., several countries, including Australia, Brazil and Canada have banned e-cigarettes while others have placed restrictions on their sale and use.