The E-Cigarette Trend is on Fire, But Still Hazy

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COLUMBIA - E-cigarettes sales are on fire, but how much do we really know about them?

Justin Huffman started smoking cigarettes when he was 19-years-old. His father is a pack-a-day smoker.

"When I was younger I hated it," Huffman said. "It just smelled bad, you'd smell like it, the car smelled like it, it was horrible. I don't even know why I ever started smoking. I think it was because a lot of the friends I had that I hung out with smoked so I thought it was the cool thing to do."

Huffman is now 27-years-old and decided to transition to electronic cigarettes a year and a half ago. He heard about e-cigarettes from his brother-in-law.

"Being that it's pretty much common knowledge that smoking causes cancer I figured it would be a good thing to do and quit for my future health, for my family and maybe the future kids I might have," Huffman said. "It seems pretty stupid to maybe die of something that you could've prevented."

E-cigarettes are battery operated nicotine inhalers containing a rechargeable lithium battery, a cartridge called a cartomizer and an LED that lights up at the end when you puff on the e-cigarette to simulate the burn of a tobacco cigarette. However, e-cigarettes don't actually contain tobacco. Instead, there's a mechanism that heats up liquid nicotine, which turns into a vapor that smokers inhale and exhale.

The smoking process is called "vaping." A heating element boils the e-liquid until it produces a vapor. An e-cigarette creates the same amount of vapor no matter how hard you puff until the battery or e-liquid runs down.

However, the phenomenon of vaping is so new that researchers haven't yet answered all questions of safety.

Starter kits usually run between $30 and $100. The estimated cost of replacement cartridges is about $600. This, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, is compared with the more than $1,000 a year it costs to feed a pack-a-day tobacco cigarette habit.

"I was a smoker for a long time and I tried to quit a lot of different ways you know, using sunflower seeds using all sorts of things," said James O'Shea, manager of Aqueous Vapor. "This is the only thing that has worked for me."

Since the trend is so new, there are still lingering questions about health risks, side effects, and usage.

In many states, including Missouri, where there is no state law against e-cigarettes, local laws are increasingly banning them in 100 percent smoke-free venues such as work places, restaurants, bars, and gambling facilities. Some states, including Arkansas, Colorado and Delaware, have more restricted rules about public usage.

Some believe e-cigarette companies are marketing to children with the hundreds of different flavored liquids to choose from.

"Adults like fruit flavors, candy flavors too," said O'Shea. "Just because an adult might like something doesn't mean that someone's targeting children."

Members of Congress released a report last week that shows a sharp increase in the marketing of E-cigarettes to children and teenagers. The report asserts that candy and fruit flavored products and adversiting through social media are contributing to the rise in popularity of the devices.

Six of the nine surveyed e-cigarette companies market the devices in flavors such as Cherry Crush, Chocolate Treat, Peachy Keen, and Grape Mint, designed to appeal to children and teens.

The Missouri House and Senate each recently passed bills that would prevent individuals younger than 18-years-old from purchasing e-cigarettes. The legislation would also exempt e-cigarettes from the state's tobacco taxes, which opponents say would allow the nicotine products to be sold with fewer restrictions.

Supporters said taxing the products would prevent the measure from passing the Republican-led Legislature. They presented the argument that without the bill, children could continue buying e-cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration has said it plans to set marketing and product regulations for e-cigarettes in the near future.