E-cigarettes: a safer alternative to smoking?

Sales of electronic cigarettes are expected to reach $1 billion this year.

Though they’re increasing in popularity, they’re not without controversy.

“Finally, smokers have a real alternative,” a narrator says on a commercial for NJOY electronic cigarettes.

Some even have celebrity endorsements, like actor Stephen Dorff for Blu e-cigs.

“C’mon guys! Rise from the ashes,” Dorff says in one commercial.

These products are designed to look, feel and even taste like traditional cigarettes, but they’re battery-powered devices that convert doses of nicotine called juice, into a vapor that’s inhaled by the user.

It’s also called “vaping.”

There are an estimated 2.5 million e-cigarette users in the United States, and in increasing numbers, people are vaping as a way to quit smoking.

Dave Norris was a smoker for 25 years. At his worst, he smoked a pack-and-a-half a day.

“I knew I should quit and I tried many different ways to quit,” he said. “I tried cold turkey, I tried the patches, the gums, hypnosis, the prescriptions, all of that.”

But none of those things worked long-term for Norris, until he picked up an electronic cigarette about two years ago.

“For 25 years, I’ve had this hand to mouth oral fixation, and this satisfies that as well as the nicotine cravings,” Norris said.

He’s not alone. Every third Saturday of the month, the White Rose Vaper’s Club meets at Cobblestone’s Restaurant in York.

Around 40 to 50 people show up to socialize and try out different products with like-minded people.

“We’re kind of a social gathering, a support group for each other,” said Norris, who helps to organize the gatherings. “So that we’re all here together and we’re all going to keep each other from ever smoking again.”

At Lancaster General Health, smoking cessation experts say the jury is still out on whether these products are safe and effective, because the industry is largely unregulated.

“It’s the safety and the potency of the nicotine,” said Mary LeVasseur, manager of Lancaster General Health’s free smoking cessation program. “So those are the things when we’re talking about what we can recommend to patients. Again, we want to be recommending things that we know have been tested.”

The liquid products that go into electronic cigarettes are at the center of the debate.

The juices come in varying nicotine dosages, some have none at all, and a variety of flavors that would probably surprise you.

Through his role as science director of The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Assocation, or CASAA, Epidemiologist and health researcher Dr. Carl Phillips is working on summarizing all of the existing research on e-cigarettes.

Phillips said about a dozen studies have found e-cigarettes do not carry significant risks for users.

“Yes, there are trace amounts of harmful chemicals to be found in the liquid or the vapor. And by trace, I mean tiny,” Phillips said. “And you know what? There are trace amounts of harmful chemicals to be found in an apple, to be found in the air.”

In April 2011, the FDA announced plans to expand regulations of e-cigarettes under the Tobacco Control Act, but that has yet to happen.

As of now, several state and local governments have passed their own restrictions on the products.

Norris said whatever the research eventually shows, he’s okay with taking his chances.

“Can I sit here and tell you this will never have a long-term, ill health effect? No,” he said. “But, can I be absolutely comfortable in saying that this is a lot healthier for me than smoking? Without question.”

The FDA has an April 1 deadline to update Congress on its plans to expand regulation of e-cigarettes and other products containing nicotine.