COLUMBIA – Ron Sena of Charleston saw his first electronic cigarette while on a cruise with his wife.
A smoker for 40 years, Sena was aware of the regulations surrounding smoking in restaurants, so he was surprised when a man pulled out what looked to be a cigarette in the dining room.
“Hey, guy, you can’t smoke in here,” he remembers saying. He was intrigued by the answer he got: It’s water vapor, not smoke.
That’s when Sena’s interest in e-cigarettes was sparked, and he isn’t alone.
E-cigarettes broke onto the American market in 2007, and the market has grown every year since. Sales are expected to hit $1 billion in 2013, according to Euromonitor.
Sena said that since quitting traditional smoking and picking up the electronic version, his lung function and senses of taste and smell have improved dramatically.
He felt so strongly about the health benefits of the products that he started his own business making refill cartridges for the devices.
Many people feel the way Sena does about the health benefits of e-cigarettes, claiming they can notice the difference in their personal health. However, e-cigarettes face a lot of critics.
Melissa Watson, a Columbia health counselor, has witnessed different results when others pick up e-cigarettes.
Watson, who works with smoking-cessation courses at Palmetto Health Baptist, has dedicated a good portion of her career to helping people quit smoking.
In her opinion, e-cigarettes might not be as helpful in the quitting process as some claim.
“Quitting isn’t the hard part,” she said. “The hard part is staying quit.”
Watson believes e-cigarettes, while potentially helpful from solely a harm reduction standpoint, are not useful in actually kicking the habit.
She said the problem with e-cigarettes is they are designed to simulate smoking, while the commonly used nicotine gums and patches are not.
“What’s the end goal?” she asked. If the patient intends to fully quit tobacco use, she said, e-cigarettes are not the way to go.
Dr. Scott Strayer of the University of South Carolina Medical School shares a similar opinion. He noted that no studies yet prove that e-cigarettes are healthier or helpful in quitting.
A former smoker of 15 years, Strayer said quitting is about “behavior change.” This can be difficult to achieve when still reliant on smoking something, even if it is electronic.
As far as being a healthier alternative, Strayer said the potential for harm is still there because a super-heated substance is being put into your lungs.
E-cigarettes are not yet regulated by tobacco laws because they do not actually contain tobacco, just nicotine.
Smoking bills generally have a hard time passing in the state’s General Assembly. Rep. B.R. Skelton, a Republican out of Pickens, is adamantly opposed to smoking and allowing smoke in public places.
Skelton, who proposed a bill in January that would ban smoking in public, indoor areas included electronic cigarettes in his proposal, but he acknowledged that as of the current session, the bill is dead.
Rep. William Clyburn, a Democrat out of Aiken, also proposed a bill this session that would ban smoking in a car with a child of preschool age. Though that bill did not include e-cigarettes, it did not make much progress this session, either.
Skelton said that many people in the state feel that bans on smoking interfere with personal liberties, which could be why it is so hard to get them passed.
Universities across the state, including Clemson and South Carolina, are pushing for tobacco-free campuses. However, it is still unclear if electronic cigarettes will be included in those bans.
Angela Nixon of Clemson’s media relations department said the issue has been discussed in meetings about the tobacco-free push, but officials aren’t sure whether e-cigarettes should be banned.
“We’re still trying to define tobacco,” she said. “We still don’t how harmful they are to people or to the environment, so we aren’t sure yet if we should include them.”
Electronic cigarettes have not been submitted to the Federal Drug Administration for testing.
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, or CASAA, encourages raising awareness, testing and development of smoking alternatives.
Elaine Keller, president of CASAA, said most manufacturers of the devices and products that accompany them have not submitted themselves to the FDA because of cost concerns.
If the products were submitted, the manufacturers would have to stop selling the products until the FDA approves them, Keller said.
“It would cost millions, and would have to go through a clinical trial period for three years,” she said. “Most companies are mom-and-pop shops, and they can’t afford to do that.”
Keller said the only company she thinks could afford to do it would be Blu, which calls itself the “best-selling electronic cigarette.” Blu could not be reached for comment.
Although the FDA doesn’t regulate electronic cigarettes at the moment, Keller said there has been talk of creating a regulation that would put the products under the control of the FDA.
If this were to happen, the products would be regulated under the Tobacco Control Act, which regulates tobacco, smokeless tobacco and roll-your-own cigarettes.
Though e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they lack tobacco and many of the known carcinogens of traditional cigarettes.
“Nicotine won’t kill us like a cigarette will,” Sena said of the hundreds of known and unknown ingredients of an average cigarette.
An e-cigarette refill cartridge made by Sena has just five ingredients: Nicotine, propylene glycol, grain alcohol, distilled water and the flavoring (contents vary slightly by flavor).
“My wife always asks when I to quit,” Sena said.
The answer? He doesn’t.