By Kenny Goldberg, KPBS
While cigarettes are a familiar sight in just about any convenience store, now they're sharing space with a related product: e-cigarettes. They're not tobacco based. Instead, e-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat liquid nicotine and turn it into vapor. Electronic cigarettes are catching fire, especially with young people, because they offer the experience of smoking, without burning tobacco. The FDA has yet to regulate them, but many cities aren't waiting. On Thursday, the New York City Council is expected to vote on a ban, following similar moves by many California cities.
At Vapor Craze, an e-cigarette shop near San Diego State University, Jeff Pascua puffs away. Or, as he calls it, vapes. Every few moments, Pascua reloads his e-cigarette from a small plastic bottle.
"It’s called the e-liquid juice," Pasqua says. "Two types: VG and PG," or vegetable glyceride and propylene glyceride.
Pascua used to smoke cigarettes. Then he heard about e-cigarettes and decided to give them a try. He says vaping helps him curb his cravings for a real smoke.
"It’s just there when I need that feeling, you know? Breaking a habit is hard to do," Pasqua says.
Vapor Craze sells more than two dozen flavors of e-liquid juice. Pascua prefers the banana walnut flavor known as Monkey Business. While he knows the juice contains nicotine, he’s not worried about it.
"From what I’ve read and seen and heard people talk about, nicotine is just like caffeine, good in moderation," Pasqua said. "I’m not saying everyone should do it, but in moderation it’s not harmful enough."
E-cigarettes were invented in China and introduced in the U.S. in 2006.
Since then, they’ve become a multi-billion dollar industry. But unlike tobacco products, e-cigarettes aren’t regulated by the FDA. As a result, ads like these are all over TV.
California Cities Regulating E-Cigarettes
More than 40 California cities aren’t waiting for the FDA to act. They’ve taken their own steps to restrict e-cigarettes. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles city council voted to ban sales to minors and require e-cigarette vendors to be licensed. The Richmond and Carlsbad city councils have gone even further. They’ve approved a ban on e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited.
Stan Glantz directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at U.C. San Francisco.
"E-cigarettes aren’t as polluting as conventional cigarettes, but they’re still polluting the air," he said.
Glantz explains e-cigarette vapor contains nicotine, heavy metals, and ultra-fine particles. He says regardless of what the FDA eventually decides, it still has no authority to regulate where e-cigarettes are used.
"If you want to have clean indoor air, which is something we’ve a long tradition of now in California, it just makes no sense to reintroduce the kind of air pollution that e-cigarettes create," Glantz argues. "So it’s very sensible that cities are moving in this area."
A bill to restrict e-cigarettes throughout California cleared the state Senate earlier this year. It’s awaiting action in the state Assembly. In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control says 1.8 million teens used e-cigarettes last year -- double the year before. Word on the street is that e-cigarettes are cool and high tech. The big question is: are they dangerous?
Dr. Thomas Novotny is a former U.S. assistant surgeon general. He’s also a professor in San Diego State’s graduate school of public health. He says we don't know what the hazards are because research on e-cigarettes has not yet been done. But he surmises the biggest risks are nicotine addiction and what he called the "re-normalization" of smoking.
"This is really disturbing, because it’s taken us decades to get smoking to be less than socially acceptable and to be restricted in public places, so that people are free from the exposure" and to reduce the number of teens who take up the habit, he says.
Back at Vapor Craze, Vance Pope doesn’t buy the arguments against e-cigarettes. Pope works at the shop. He says flavors like "sugar daddy" and "juicy booty" aren’t designed for kids. He says his store doesn’t let kids under 18 buy e-cigarettes.
"I don’t condone anyone under 18 to do it," Pope says, "but as long as they’re 18, I feel like that’s their choice."
The FDA has been talking about regulating e-cigarettes since 2009. An announcement could come later this month.