Originally published December 4, 2013 at 5 p.m., updated December 5, 2013 at 10:18 a.m.
Electronic cigarettes are catching fire nationwide.
E-cigarettes are touted as a harmless, high-tech alternative to cigarettes. But critics say they're an insidious way to get people addicted to nicotine.
E-cigarettes offer the sensation of smoking, without burning tobacco. These battery-operated devices heat up liquid nicotine and turn it into vapor. Users say they’re a lot safer than smoking cigarettes. But public health experts aren’t so sure.
At Vapor Craze, an e-cigarette shop across from San Diego State, Jeff Pascua puffs away. Or, as he calls it, vapes.
Every few moments, Pascua reloads his e-cigarette from a small plastic bottle.
"It’s called the e-liquid juice," Pascua said. "Two types: VG and PG. Vegetable glyceride, and then propylene, I can’t pronounce that."
Pascua used to smoke cigarettes. Then he heard about e-cigarettes and decided to give them a try.
Pascua said vaping helps him curb his cravings for a real smoke.
"It’s just there when I need that feeling, you know? Breaking a habit is hard to do," Pascua explained.
Vapor Craze sells more than two dozen flavors of e-liquid juice. Pascua prefers the banana walnut flavor known as Monkey Business. He’s knows the juice contains nicotine, but he’s not worried about it.
"From what I’ve read and seen and heard people talk about, nicotine is just like caffeine — good in moderation," Pascua said. "I’m not saying everyone should do it, but, in moderation it’s not harmful enough, you know?"
There are a number of different types of vaping products. Starter kits can cost as little as $30. High-end devices with digital readouts can run in the hundreds.
Vapor Craze worker Vance Pope loves vaping. With every vape he takes, he blows out smoke that looks like car exhaust on a cold day. Pope thinks his job selling vaping stuff is awesome.
"Because I feel like I’m changing lives. Getting people off cigarettes and changing the actual notion, of the look, or the feel of actually smoking," Pope said.
Before discovering vaping, Pope was a two-pack-a-day smoker. And now?
"It’s just such a positive attitude that I face around other people, by not smoking at all," he said. "And I don’t get the little snickers of wow, your clothes stink, or, that kind of thing, or, you stink, dude! You know, it’s a great feeling."
E-cigarettes were invented in China. They were introduced in the U.S. in 2006. Since then, e-cigarettes have become a multibillion-dollar industry.
But unlike tobacco products, e-cigarettes aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. As a result, ads featuring sexy, scantily clad women touting e-cigarettes are all over TV. Some argue these ads target children.
The Centers for Disease Control reported 1.8 million teens used e-cigarettes last year. That’s a 100 percent increase from the previous year. Word on the street is, e-cigarettes are sort of cool, and high-tech. The big question is: Are they safe?
Dr. Thomas Novotny, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general and professor at the San Diego State University School of Public Health, said the jury is still out.
"We don’t really know what the hazards are, because the research hasn’t been done," he said. "I think the biggest hazard is nicotine addiction, and the normalization of smoking, I mean, the re-normalization of it. And this is really disturbing, because it’s taken us decades to get smoking to be less than socially acceptable and to be restricted in public places, so that people are free from the exposure, and also to sort of reduce the uptake of smoking by kids.”
In the absence of federal regulations, four states and the District of Columbia have included e-cigarettes in their indoor smoking bans. California is said to be considering similar action.
Vista has become the first city in San Diego County to ban e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited, and the Carlsbad City Council passed a similar measure on Tuesday.
Vista City Councilman Cody Campbell says it’s the right thing to do.
"Basically we’re saying that it’s not OK to encourage youth in our communities to choose this product, and basically become addicted," Campbell said.
The Sweetwater Union High School District is ahead of the curve, too. Communications director Manuel Rubio said in October the South Bay district added e-cigarettes to its ban on tobacco products on campuses and at all student events.
“We had a couple of instances at our campuses, where students were bringing them to school, they were showing them to their friends, and they were playing with them," Rubio said. "And we just thought, you know what, before it becomes a bigger issue, why not take a step out there, and do the right thing for kids.”
Back at Vapor Craze, Vance Pope doesn’t buy the arguments against e-cigarettes. He said flavors like sugar daddy and juicy booty aren’t designed for kids. After all, his store doesn’t let kids under 18 buy e-cigarettes.
"But as long as they’re 18, I feel like that’s their choice," Pope said.
The FDA has developed some rules on e-cigarettes, but hasn’t made them public yet.
Officials say the White House is reviewing the proposal.