COLUMBIA — In the era of e-everything, it's no great surprise there is now an e-cigarette.
Known as an "e-cig," the device is a battery-operated smoking substitute that looks like an ordinary cigarette but produces no smoke or ash. Smoking an e-cig is called "vaping."
While it's unclear if the e-cig is much safer than an ordinary cigarette, the device has advantages in a smoke-free city such as Columbia. Risks associated with smoking tobacco cigarettes, such as secondhand smoke or fire safety, don't exist with e-cigs. There are no combustible products with e-cigs, which means no lighting up and no smoldering tobacco. That means laws that regulate smoking tobacco products might not apply either.
Aspiring nonsmokers seem to be embracing the e-cig.
At Aardvarx, at 17 N. Tenth St., sales of an e-cig brand called "Nova Smoke" have been pretty steady. Stefanie Sigrist, who works at the smoking supply and gift shop, said Aardvarx has sold one to three of the electronic cigarette starter kits each week since the store began stocking them in December 2009.
"We've been placing orders every week," she said.
The Nova Smoke looks like a rechargeable cigarette pack and has a flip-out plug in the base. The e-cig inside weighs slightly more than a regular cigarette because it contains a small rechargeable battery. The part that looks like the filter is a cartridge containing nicotine and an atomizer.
Lighting up an e-cig is simple: The "vaper" — the e-cig smoker — just presses the cartridge onto the battery and takes a puff. A small bulb on the end lights up, almost like a real cigarette. What's missing is smoke, ash and smoldering tobacco. There's no noticeable odor.
What's inhaled is mainly water vapor, which gives off a mist and delivers varying amounts of nicotine, depending on what type of cartridge is in the cigarette.
There are several brands available.
Chris Guebert, 30, of St. Louis tried "blu" brand e-cigs last year, but decided to go back to tobacco cigarettes after several weeks. "It was kind of a pain," he said.
He found the brand he tried became clogged and didn't deliver consistent puffs after he used it for several days.
"I would have stuck with it if you got a consistent puff every time" Guebert said.
Guebert said he is not a heavy smoker. But two of his friends who smoke heavily tried e-cigs as well. They also went back to tobacco after a short time because of the same problem: just not the same tobacco kick, Guebert said.
"You don't get the same drag" as you do from a tobacco cigarette, said Jordan Allen-Baxter, 22, a computer science junior. "You don't feel the smoke hit your lungs."
But he felt an improvement in his breathing within a month. Now, roughly six months since he began using an "e-cig," he has cut his tobacco smoking at least by half, going from a pack of cigarettes every day or two, to one every four days. He said one of his friends used e-cigs to quit smoking entirely.
"There's a different pattern from smoking regular cigarettes. With e-cigs, you take a puff whenever you want," Allen-Baxter said. He said by using cartridges with the higher level of nicotine, a smoker gets just as much, if not more, nicotine than from tobacco cigarettes. He hopes to step down his smoking and nicotine craving by switching to cartridges with lower nicotine levels.
Using the e-cig to cut down or quit smoking fits with what Sigrist has observed about people buying the device. More than half of the buyers have told her that they were buying the kit to help them quit smoking, she said.
For smokers looking for a way around Columbia's smoking ordinance, in effect since January 2007, the "e-cig" might just work. The ordinance makes possession of lighted, smoldering materials in enclosed public places unlawful. A smoking device that isn't lit and produces no smoke, however, would not violate the city ordinance, said Environmental Health Manager Gerry Worley from the Columbia Health Department.
There's a start-up cost: Smokers have to purchase a $44 kit, which consists of the charging cigarette case, the e-cig and its rechargeable battery and a cartridge containing nicotine with an atomizer that produces the vapor that smokers inhale.
Each cartridge has the same number of inhalations as an ordinary pack of cigarettes, Sigrist said. The store also stocks refill cartridges, which cost $7 for a pack of five.
Questions remain about the regulation of e-cigs.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began blocking e-cigs import into the U.S. in early 2009, a U.S. District judge granted a preliminary injunction in January allowing importation of e-cigs until a final decision is reached.
Two e-cig suppliers filed a lawsuit against the FDA by mid-2009 to stop the agency from blocking e-cig importation.
The FDA cited the 2009 federal Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which allows the agency to monitor tobacco products. However, the act specifically applies to tobacco products, and electronic cigarettes contain no tobacco.
There might still be people who wish they weren't available. Allen-Baxter said nonsmokers sometimes give him dirty looks when he's "vaping" because they can see the vapor, a slight mist given off by the e-cig but they can't smell the difference, leading to confusion about whether he is actually smoking.