Debate whirls over e-cig benefits, risks as industry quickly expands



Six months before the birth of his second child in March, Fort Gordon Maj. Mike Stokes finally agreed with his wife that it was time to stop smoking cigarettes. He just was unsure how he would quit the 17-year habit he picked up from his family in high school.

The 32-year-old Army officer had already tried a nicotine patch to control his cravings and an anti-depressant prescription to give cigarettes a nasty taste, but both attempts failed, making him admittedly irritable and bossy.

Then, in September 2012, a soldier introduced him to electronic cigarettes, a look-alike cigarette product that delivers nicotine without burning tobacco and produces a vapor, not smoke.

“I’m completely off cigarettes,” Stokes said happily last weekend while purchasing refills at Victorious Vapors on Bobby Jones Expressway for his electronic cigarette – or e-cig, as it’s more commonly known.

Once a curiosity at mall kiosks and flea markets, e-cigs are popping up on tobacco shelves, in smoke shops and at military exchanges, which began carrying the battery-powered devices in June.

Although their sales have been relatively small through the Fort Gordon Exchange, with only 440 sold in an average month to the more than 56,000 shoppers the service has in the area, some soldiers say that nearly half of the local military population has made the switch and that they expect traditional cigarettes to become obsolete on post in the next 20 years.

Victorious Vapors owner Scotty Wolkow said that in the past year his clientele has quadrupled, increasing from 4,000 customers to more than 17,000. He estimates 35 percent of his sales come from active-duty military members.

“The bottom line is, the vast majority of soldiers want to quit smoking, and although this can’t be designated as a smoking cessation, it is a much safer alternative,” he said.

Wolkow, an Army veteran who started his business almost four years ago at the Barnyard Flea Markets in Augusta to help soldiers quit smoking, said his operation has grown at such a rapid rate that he has established an online store and plans to open a vapor shop this week in Athens, Ga.

As e-cigs grow in popularity, government regulators and the military are still sorting out what rules should apply to the devices, which turn a nicotine-infused liquid such as propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine into an inhalable vapor.

Because of the partial government shutdown in October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to meet its 2013 goal of imposing rules on e-cigs but has said it likely will add them to the list of tobacco products regulated by the agency.

The military already treats them as tobacco products, restricting their use to designated smoking areas and their sales to a behind-the-counter operation that’s accessible only to soldiers who are 18 or older, said Judd Anstey, the spokesman for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

Wolkow said the FDA has been studying for five years the health risks of e-cigs as proof for industry sanctions but has yet to find anything negative. He said he does not believe it ever will.

Wolkow began smoking in 1984 during basic training, when two fellow soldiers introduced him to cigarettes as a nerve-calming activity. He became hooked and eventually a pack-a-day Marlboro smoker for 25 years.

Now, his electronic cigarette is down to 6 milligrams of nicotine – from a start of 24 milligrams – and he expects to be free of his addiction in two months.

“When you find something that works as well as this does, naturally you wonder why,” said Wolkow, who identified e-cig benefits that help cigarette users quit. The products mimic the hand-to-mouth motion and throat-hit sensations that smokers have grown accustomed to, and they use a gradual decrease in nicotine dosage to wean people off the drug.

Wolkow said the process has a success rate that nearly tops 95 percent and possibly in the near future could include Stokes, who expects to be nicotine free by his second child’s first birthday.

Stokes began with an e-cig starter kit 15 months ago as a way to break a Marlboro addiction that started at age 15. Today, his nicotine dose is down from 24 milligrams to nine.

“I no longer taste or smell like an ashtray and I have noticed I can breathe a little easier,” Stokes said. “Plus, my clothes don’t smell and my family isn’t subjected to any secondhand smoke.”

Beyond its tangible benefits, Stokes said he is drawn to e-cigs because they are cheaper than smoking traditional cigarettes. Starter kits sell for between $80 and $100, and can be refilled with nicotine liquids that cost $12.99 for a 20-milliliter bottle. One bottle is the equivalent of about two cartons of cigarettes, manufacturers say. A single carton of cigarettes retails for more than $50.

Among the concerns the FDA has about the gadgets, though, is long-term health consequences, quality-control issues and marketing, especially questions over whether children and teens might be drawn to them.

The number of people using e-cigarettes has skyrocketed: U.S. sales are projected to reach $1.5 billion in 2013, triple the amount from 2012.
Further, the percentage of students in grades six through 12 who have used e-cigarettes doubled last year, increasing from 3.3 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2012, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, the CDC estimates that 1.78 million students have used e-cigarettes. More than 100 companies have a share of the market, which not only includes tobacco and menthol flavors, but 175 other specially made blends that consist of popcorn, chocolate, caramel machiatto and strawberry vanilla.

In anticipation of the FDA regulating the industry, Wolkow said he already restricts his sales to customers 18 and older. He would not go as far to say the products have negative attributes.

“It’s an effective product that helped me quit smoking,” he said. “That’s not only a personal testimony, but a line I hear every day in my shop.”