Electronic buzz: E-cigarettes stir excitement, concern
A brand new Charlotte company is doing very well for itself. Blu sells something known as electronic cigarettes. An e-cigarette looks like and can deliver nicotine like a traditional one without the harmful tobacco. But a growing public health debate over the safety of e-cigarettes means Blu's hot start may not last. WFAE's Scott Graf has more: Adam Dellinger is a 27-year-old bartender at Boardwalk Billy's in the University City area. Up until today, he's never even heard of electronic cigarettes. But he's up for trying one. He takes two drags and studies the taste. "It's got a nice flavor to it," he says. "It does what I thought it was going to do I guess. Which was give me some kind of sensation in my lungs, which it does do. But it's not as powerful as a regular cigarette." Dellinger is smoking a Blu brand cigarette. With help from 10 investors, Australian Jason Healy started Blu 3 months ago in Charlotte. Healy says within a matter of weeks, sales had quadrupled to 2,000 kits a day, at $60 a pop. Blu's investors made their money back in the first month. "The response was so overwhelming," Healy says, "and the product's in such high demand that at the moment we can't keep up with the sales we've got." Blu is adding manufacturing space at its plant in China. By fall, Blu's production capabilities will be four times larger than in May. So Healy should be optimistic about Blu's future in the US, right? Not really. "Unfortunately, and as disappointing as it is I wouldn't bet the farm on it, that we'll be around in 5 years." Healy is confident of Blu's future overseas. But here, he's worried because the FDA says e-cigarettes are potentially dangerous. Even groups like the American Lung Association are against the products. Healy guesses Blu has about 50 competitors and most work the same way. They're shaped like regular cigarettes, and use a battery to ignite a small foil pack inside. A chemical reaction creates a vapor that users inhale and exhale, and then it quickly dissipates. What's in that vapor though, is what worries the FDA. Judy Leon, a spokeswoman, says more testing is needed. "We just don't know what's in them," Leon says. "And neither do the American consumers. And until the FDA can evaluate them, nobody knows what's in them." One thing that is in most is nicotine. And the FDA says it has jurisdiction over e-cigarettes for that reason. It's blocked two brands from the entering the country. That led to a lawsuit that will likely determine the FDA's authority over e-cigarettes. Keeping a very close eye on it all is Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in Boston University's School of Public Health. "It boggles my mind why public health agencies, including anti-smoking groups would want to take this product off the market because of concerns that there is some, very small, hypothetical risk that this product could be doing harm." Siegel says the research he's seen on e-cigarettes shows they're safer than traditional cigarettes. And he thinks they're perfect for people who have tried but can't stop smoking tobacco. He says if the FDA someday bans products like Blu, then it's doing so only for political reasons. "Here you have a product, tobacco products, which kill 400,000 people a year, we know they kill 400,000 people a year," he says. "There's no need for testing. They've already been tested. Yet, here's a product that's helping to keep people off the deadly one, and they're talking about possibly taking it off the market." E-cigarettes have generated debate among doctors. Dr. Thomas Stern treats emphysema patients at Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte. He says an e-cigarette is the best stop-smoking tool he's seen. "Because it addresses two issues: One, is the nicotine replacement issue. And then the other is (the) behavioral issue. The gums, the patches, the inhalers do not have the same feel, look, quality of the device so that it would help with the behavioral aspects of smoking cessation." Stern wants to see more testing done on e-cigarettes, and thinks a year's worth of research is all it would take. Healy, the president of Blu, says he wants to work with the government to get FDA approval. But he also wants to be able to sell his product in the meantime. "And ultimately this should be a regulated industry in some way," Healy says. "We don't mind that. We want to get it to that stage. But the more we go along it appears we may not even be allowed to get it to that stage." If the FDA wins in court, Siegel - the professor in Boston - worries the agency's approval process could take upwards of a decade. And he says that means hundreds of thousands of people who are using e-cigarettes now to smoke fewer conventional ones, may be forced to return to their old habit full time.