The notion of a "healthier" cigarette that can satisfy nicotine cravings and be devoid of tar and other cancer-causing agents may seem a long overdue "Holy Grail" to smokers concerned about their health.
The electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, indeed hails itself as the latest breakthrough in smoking alternatives, with many finding solace in the device's compact, cigarette-like shape and the replacing of smoke with the seemingly harmless aromas of flavored nicotine vapors.
Michael Martinelli, owner of his own e-cigarette and "vaping" shop in Jamestown - aptly titled Big Puff's Vapor Store - has been a staunch proponent of e-cigarettes for years, claiming they not only weaned him off traditional cigarettes, but saved his life.
Michael Martinelli, owner of Big Puff’s Vapor Store in Jamestown smokes an e-cigarette behind his desk at the business.
P-J?photo by A.J. Rao
"Every single year since I was 15 years old and started smoking cigarettes, I got an upper respiratory infection," Martinelli said. "This year I didn't. Anybody who's willing to take a look at the effects (of e-cigarettes) should take a look at someone like me. I've had nothing but improvement with my health."
Indeed, since its introduction to the United States in 2008, the e-cigarette has compelled millions to seek similar results.
Battery-operated and resembling typical ball-point pens, e-cigarettes include detachable cartridges that contain so-called "e-juice" or flavored nicotine solutions. An atomizer within the device heats up the solution and turns it into a vapor that can be inhaled. People can sample a wide variety of flavors by simply switching cartridges.
"I've had nothing but improvement with my health."
owner of Big Puff's Vapor Store in Jamestown
Martinelli sells more than 120 flavors at his shop.
"(Sales) have been great ... the response around here has been very good," Martinelli said. "Yes, nicotine is very addictive, there's no way around it. But the health problem with cigarettes is not nicotine ... it's the tar, the chemicals and the smoke entering your body. Nicotine may be the reason why people keep smoking, but it's not the reason why people get lung cancer."
Martinelli is not alone in his thinking, but many - particularly young people - are seeing e-cigarettes as a smoke-free, and therefore completely safe, alternative to traditional cigarettes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes in 2011 more than doubled in 2012, totaling at approximately 1.78 million students.
One out of five adults who smoke in the U.S. experimented with e-cigarettes, and a staggering $2 billion in sales were reported in 2013.
While the novelty factor certainly plays a role here, it's no secret that it cuts both ways. Adequate research on e-cigarettes has yet to be conducted, and potential health risks are not fully explored.
Toni DeAngelo, director of the WCA Hospital Community Health and Wellness program, stated that e-cigarettes still have an "unknown" factor about them and are not even regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
"New research is finding that e-cigarette users inhale a vapor containing addictive nicotine and other chemical products which are harmful to your bloodstream and all of the body's vital organs," DeAngelo said. "Because of the "unknown" in them, it is safe to say that people should not use e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking nor as a vehicle to help them to cut down or quit tobacco use."
DeAngelo also alluded to big tobacco companies that are now vying to buy e-cigarette makers. This only exacerbates the "unknown" factor of e-cigarettes because tobacco companies can put any amount of nicotine or chemicals into "e-juice" cartridges to keep people addicted and make money.
Another concern is the addition of food additives like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin to nicotine solutions. While safe to consume, these ingredients may be hazardous to inhale. No conclusive research has been conducted.
DeAngelo punctuated her remarks by stating that she would never recommend e-cigarettes to a smoking cessation group.
"A smoker may think that e-cigarettes can help them to wean off cigarettes, but in actuality, if a smoker quits with its use, that smoker was already 'ready to quit,'" DeAngelo said. "E-cigarettes just mimic the smoking habit ... (you) can't do the same things the same way and expect to quit smoking. A cigarette is a cigarette is a cigarette."
Martinelli, while fully aware of the controversy e-cigarettes generate, continues to stand by his product, waiting for conclusive evidence to prove him wrong.
"Unless I see physical and medical proof, I'm not going to believe (the criticism)," Martinelli said. "There may be research that comes out and finds something harmful, but in my own heart, this is the lesser of two evils."