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Can E-Cigarettes Cure America’s $90 Billion Smoking Problem?

Daily Ticker

It took 30 years for Peter Denholtz to give up smoking. But his nicotine addiction has been much harder to kick. “I’d be jonesing,” Denholtz admits when asked what would happen if he avoided the highly addictive chemical for 24 hours. Denholtz still carries a cigarette with him -- an electronic one, that is. E-cigarettes, as they’re commonly referred to, are battery-operated devices that deliver hits of nicotine to the user when the liquid inside is heated and vaporized. E-cigs are becoming increasingly popular with former smokers and celebrities who are being paid to endorse the products on national television. But do not call an e-cigarette user a “smoker” unless you’re looking for trouble.

“We don’t smoke,” says Talia Eisenberg, correcting a reporter’s observation. “We vape.”

Eisenberg, Denholtz and Denholtz’s brother Jon know a lot about vaping and the e-cigarette lifestyle. They opened the Henley Vaporium, New York City’s first e-cigarette bar, on Cleveland Place in Soho this month. There will soon be another location in Union Square and with a third outpost planned for the first half of 2014. If all goes well a Henley vaporium could soon be coming to a city near you.

“We’re a place for people to come and learn about electronic cigarettes and vaping,” Peter tells The Daily Ticker. “Our goal is to get people to understand there’s an alternative to getting nicotine without the chemicals, without the tar, without the things that are causing cancer.”

The 2,700 square foot store has the look and feel of a traditional bar, except that cold-pressed organic juices are served instead of alcohol and customers vie for the attention of the “vapologist” behind the bar. These “vapologists” not only pour the liquid nicotine of choice into individual e-cigarette devices (Gummy bear flavor anyone?) but they’re also trained to answer questions relating to e-cigarettes. (only Henley brand products are offered at the Vaporium).

E-cigarettes are made up of three parts: a rechargeable battery, an atomizer – responsible for heating the liquid – and a clearomizer, the part that holds the liquid. Eisenberg compares the e-cigarette business to the razor blade industry model: the actual e-cig device lasts forever but the liquid nicotine (the “blade”) needs to be bought regularly. One 10 milliliter bottle of liquid nicotine lasts the equivalent of three to four packs of traditional cigarettes and retails for $10 to $15 a bottle at the vaporium. Varying strengths of nicotine -- from 0 milligrams to 24 milligrams – are available. Individuals usually spend at least $70 at their first vaporium visit and $20 thereafter (no vapologist tipping required).

Sales of e-cigarettes are expected to surpass $1 billion this year and analysts at Wells Fargo predict sales will top $10 billion in five years.

Related: Big Tobacco Invests in E-Cigarettes: Should You?

Nearly 21% of U.S. adult smokers (an estimated 45 million people) had also tried e-cigarettes according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 6% of all U.S. adults have used an e-cigarette at least once. The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates that nearly 4 million Americans use battery-powered cigarettes. The e-cigarette trend also extends to minors. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the number of U.S. middle and high school students who “vape” doubled between 2011 and 2012. More than 1.7 million teens have admitted to trying e-cigarettes. More than two dozen states ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

The Food and Drug Administration does not currently regulate electronic cigarettes but is under pressure to include e-cigarettes as part of the $90 billion U.S. tobacco market. An announcement could be made as soon as next week on whether the government agency will impose regulations on e-cigarette advertising, ingredients and sales to minors. Forty attorneys general wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in September urging the agency to consider “immediate regulatory oversight” of e-cigarettes because they “are appealing to youth” and there are no standards “ensuring the safety of the ingredients.”

“E-cigarettes are not being marketed as smoking cessation devices, but rather as recreational alternatives to real cigarettes,” according to the Sept. 25 letter. “Consumers are led to believe that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to cigarettes despite the fact that they are addictive.”

Denholtz disagrees.

“There is a lot of evidence that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking,” he says adamantly. “There are studies at Boston University, Johns Hopkins University and two Italian universities that say there’s been no better way for people to stop smoking. When you compare it to patches or lozenges or nicotine gum, they all fall very short compared to electronic cigarettes.”

A study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, backs up Denholtz’s claims. Researchers found that e-cigarettes were just as effective in helping people quit smoking as traditional nicotine-replacement therapies.

“While our results don’t show any clear-cut differences…in terms of quit success after six months, it certainly seems that e-cigarettes were more effective in helping smokers who didn’t quit to cut down,” said lead researcher Chris Bullen.

E-cigarettes may help smokers wean themselves off traditional smokes but are e-cigarettes healthier?

“You do not have the things that are in a traditional cigarette that cause lung cancer,” argues Denholtz. “We can debate nicotine all day long. “Propylene glycol [an ingredient used in liquid nicotine] is used in asthma inhalers, it’s used as a food additive, it’s non-cariogenic at the levels it’s being used. It’s a lot healthier than something that’s causing almost half a million deaths in the U.S. and causing our health care industry just about $200 billion a year.”

In 2009 the FDA warned that there were health risks associated with e-cigarettes. The FDA analyzed two leading brands of e-cigarettes in 2009 and found trace amounts of nine contaminates, including the toxic chemical diethylene glycol, which is found in anti-freeze.

“As for long-term effects, we don’t know what happens when you breathe the vapor into the lungs regularly,” American Cancer Society’s Thomas Glynn told ABC News. “We also don’t know how harmful trace levels can be.”

For Denholtz, making the switch to electronic cigarettes has improved his health and given him more energy.

“There’s a huge difference in the way that I feel,” he maintains. “And I attribute that to not smoking traditional cigarettes.”

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