The skyrocketing popularity of e-cigarettes: A guide

Smokeless tobacco is booming, thanks to a widespread belief that newly affordable e-cigarettes are actually better for you — but not all doctors agree

Electronic cigarettes
(Image credit: Marcus Brandt/dpa/Corbis)

It seems like every time you turn a corner, you see a stranger puffing on a glowing electronic cigarette. Well, you aren't necessarily imagining things. In the four years since smokeless e-cigarettes debuted, sales of the battery-powered devices, reputedly healthier and less offensive than standard smokes, have exploded annually. In 2010, only 750,000 e-cigarettes were sold, but the following year, sales more than doubled to 2.5 million. And in 2012, the tobacco industry moved some 3.5 million of the devices, with no signs of slowing growth. But what are e-cigarettes, exactly? And why are people using them? Here's what you need to know:

How do e-cigarettes work?

These deceptively simple gadgets contain just five ingredients: Nicotine, water, glycerol, propylene glycol (used in inhalers), and optional flavors like cherry, says Wendy Koch at USA Today. When you take a puff, the device heats nicotine into inhalable water vapor, while the tip glows faintly, mimicking the real thing. Since the process of "vaping," as it's called, doesn't emit any actual smoke, users can skirt increasingly strict smoking laws in public places.

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Why else do people use them?

There's a perception, much debated, that e-cigs are better for you than traditional cancer sticks because they contain no tar and less nicotine, says Paula Ebben at CBS News, and now companies are even infusing them with vitamins. According to one recent survey, 70 percent of Americans believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than the regular kind. But such thinking "could lure in kids who might not otherwise smoke," warns John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University, who's pushing for more FDA regulation.

Why are sales soaring?

E-cigs have gotten much cheaper. A few years ago, one e-stick cost $200. Now, each unit sells for $21, and replacement cartridges — which provide the effects of a pack and a half of cigarettes — cost $3 each. Plus the product isn't federally taxed, although some states are considering their own fees. Traditional cigarette sales have been falling by 3 to 4 percent annually, says Bloomberg, while sales of smokeless products are steadily increasing, growing 7.5 percent from 2010 to 2011. Celebrity endorsements could also be a factor. In the film The Tourist, for example, actor Johnny Depp whips out an e-cig. And actress Katherine Heigl talked about her e-cigarette use on The Late Show in 2010.

Do e-cigs pose any risk to passers-by?

No, claim manufacturers. But with little clinical support for such claims, an increasing number of cities and states are cautiously banning the use of e-cigarettes in public places. Amtrak, for example, forbids them on trains. And the Navy now prohibits e-cigarettes below deck on its submarines.

Bottom line: Are they better for you than real cigarettes?

We'd like to be conclusive, but the jury is out. A recent Greek study showed that first-time e-cigarette smokers showed signs of "airway constriction — as measured by several types of breathing tests — and of inflammation" within five minutes of their first puff, says Amy Norton at Reuters. Others in the medical community see potential health benefits. "E-cigarettes may hold promise as a smoking cessation method," says Boston University researcher Michael Siegel in a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year. "My brain thinks its still smoking," says one former chain smoker of 51 years who made the switch to e-cigarettes. "But my smoker's cough is gone. I feel a lot better." There is a better option, however, says CBS News' Ebben: "Kicking the [smoking] habit altogether."

Sources: CBS News, Bloomberg Businessweek, Reuters, USA Today

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