PROVIDENCE — The last time Frank Meglio smoked a cigarette he had to plug it in and charge it. Then the 38-year-old Providence man inhaled through the white plastic cigarette-like tube, which activated a little lithium battery inside that produced a flame-like light, a smoke-like vapor and a nicotine hit.
Smoking’s gone high-tech.
Electronic cigarettes, or “e cigs” as they’re often called, have been in existence about a decade. But only recently, as tobacco cigarette prices soar, have they gained popularity, and controversy.
These products are being promoted as offering smokers the nicotine they want without the cancer-causing chemicals they don’t want. Since there’s no odor and no real smoke (just propylene glycol used in theatrical fog) or flame (just a tiny light at the tip for effect), they can be used indoors. They come in different flavors and four levels of nicotine dosages.
“Most people use it as a healthier way to smoke,” said Edwin Schwab, who works on the second floor of Providence Place at the kiosk of Smoking Everywhere, a U.S. distributor of e cigs. “It sounds absurd but it’s really true.”
What may make e cigs more appealing now than before is the recent rise in the price of cigarettes. Last week, Rhode Island raised its excise tax on cigarettes to $3.46 per pack, the highest in the country. And the federal excise tax rose from 39 cents per pack to $1.01. So a typical pack of smokes in the state now costs $8.35.
Compare that with a pack of e cigs: $2. Since they’re not cigarettes, they’re not taxed as cigarettes. They contain the drug nicotine, but aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration –– at least not yet.
The FDA reports that it is “looking into this.” And it is getting encouragement to look thoroughly and decisively. Two months ago David Gifford, the state’s health director, wrote the FDA asking it to regulate e cigs because of their nicotine content.
“We don’t support e cigarettes,” said Annemarie Beardsworth, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Health. “Nicotine is an addictive substance.”
Any product promoting withdrawal from nicotine, she maintained , should be FDA-approved. “E cigarettes are not a regulated product. There is no identification required to purchase them. With tobacco you need to be 18.”
E cigarettes sold by Smoking Everywhere, a Florida-based company, come in various flavors: apple, cherry, strawberry and chocolate, among others.
A Smoking Everywhere starter kit, which comes with a charger and five tips, with each tip the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, costs $130. Replacement packs of five tips cost $10.
Meglio used to smoke tobacco cigarettes, a pack a day, until Jan 1. On Jan. 2 he bought a Smoking Everywhere starter kit. He hasn’t smoked a real cigarette since. And previously he had tried other products to try to stop smoking. But nothing worked for long.
“I tried the gum and ended up with hiccups and it tastes really gross. With the patch, you’re getting nicotine all day. With this, I get what I need when I want it.”
Since January, Meglio has reduced the number of times a day he uses his e cig, and reduced the nicotine dosage of his e cigs. The question is: Has he has traded one form of nicotine addiction (cigarettes) for another (e cigarettes)?
“If I don’t quit, I’m still better off than smoking,” he maintains.
Schwab, 28, who smoked for roughly a decade, stopped when he began using e cigarettes, which he now sells.
“I believed in the product so much that I wanted to work for the company,” Schwab said.
It has been four months since Schwab smoked a tobacco cigarette. A friend had given him an e cig starter kit, which he ignored for a month, until one cold and snowy night he was going out with friends and didn’t feel like smoking outside. So he gave e cigs a try.
“It seemed bizarre and gimmicky. I just thought it wouldn’t work.”
Now it’s been a month since Schwab has had an e cig, which he attributes to changing his life.
“I realized smoking was slowly taking over my life. I was up to two packs a day. I was always in my basement or outside smoking. My car stunk. My clothes stunk. I couldn’t believe I was spending all this money to make my things stink.”
The Smoking Everywhere e cigarettes are sold at mall kiosks around the country. Steve Bayonne of Providence owns the one in Providence, which has been in operation for a few months.
“Once every 10 years there is a really good product that hits the market,” Bayonne said. “I heard about this last year and decided to move forward.”
Bayonne is not a smoker; he’s a businessman. Before becoming a Smoking Everywhere distributor, he gave the product to his friends who smoked.
“They all felt better on the product instantly.”
Bayonne said e cigs are “an alternative to smoking, not a smoking cessation product.” But the problem is one of perception. E cigs are offered in nicotine dosages of high, medium, low and none. The obvious inference is it can be used as a smoking-cessation product, and smoking-cessation products must be regulated by the FDA; this is not.
More needs to be known about e cigarettes, according to Jim Beardsworth, communications director for the Warwick-based Southern New England Region of the American Cancer Society.
“There is not a lot of data out there. There have not been clinical trials on this product. I do think it’s something that deserves tremendous caution.”
What does everyone think about these?
If you smoke: Would you consider switching to e-cigarettes as an alternative means of supporting a nicotine addiction? Would you consider yourself 'better off' than smoking a cigarette because e-cigarettes are, in theory, not cancer-causing? Would you consider switching to electronic cigarettes as a viable means to quit smoking?
If you do not smoke: Do you think that smokers who choose to switch to an electronic cigarette are making a wiser choice for their long-term health? Do you consider that the absence of tobacco in electronic cigarettes makes them 'healthier' than classic tobacco cigarettes?
Whether or not you smoke: Do you believe that this product should be regulated by the FDA? Do you believe that this product should be taxed as a cigarette, or a different drug altogether, or not at all? Do you consider this product a positive or negative influence on younger people or potential future-smokers?