Growing use of e-cigarettes draws attention of entrepreneurs, lawmakers

Annapolis businessman David Purdy started smoking when he was 15. He tried nicotine patches to kick the addiction. Later, he tried Nicorette gum. Neither worked.

Then a neighbor, also a heavy smoker, introduced him to an e-cigarette, a battery-operated device that mimics smoking a traditional cigarette. Unlike a tobacco cigarette, it emits vapor, not smoke. Purdy, then 47, gave it a try.

"Within a month, I started feeling the health benefits of it," Purdy said. "I started tasting food again much better, started breathing much better. … I could feel my body responding to not smoking anymore."

Purdy eventually quit smoking and began researching the possibility of opening his own e-cigarette store, saying, "I saw the industry taking off."

His store, 2 Vapes, is located in the Cape St. Claire shopping center. The storefront is about the size of a large living room, with three main display cases. Star Wars figurines and other small toys decorate the countertops.

"Here I am, and I'm doing quite well," said Purdy, now 50.

Purdy is among business people — and customers — latching onto the interest in e-cigarettes, devices that contain a liquid solution, usually a mix of nicotine, flavoring and propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin. The device heats up the solution to emit vapor that users inhale.

The rise of e-cigarette stores, both online and brick-and-mortar shops, is increasing in Maryland and beyond. Yet as the popularity rises, so do concerns.

There are decades of research concluding tobacco smoke from traditional cigarettes is harmful. Many say that it's just too early to tell if that's the case with e-cigarettes.

The FDA does not regulate e-cigarettes, so it's up to states and local governments to establish regulations. Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and, most recently, Los Angeles, ban the use of e-cigarettes in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other public spaces. In Los Angeles, the use of e-cigarettes in "vapor lounges" is permitted.

In Maryland, Hartford and Anne Arundel counties have some restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in public. Airlines prohibit e-cigarette use, as well do MARC trains. It became illegal for minors to buy e-cigarettes in Maryland in 2012.

Maryland lawmakers during the 2014 General Assembly session have been weighing a measure that would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes wherever traditional cigarettes are banned. A bill sponsored by Del. Aruna Miller, a Montgomery County Democrat, sought to place e-cigarettes under the definition of "smoking" in the Maryland Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, which bans smoking in virtually all indoor workplaces.

The bill received an unfavorable report from the House Economic Matters Committee last week and is now considered a long shot to advance during the session.

There is no conclusive evidence that vapor produced from e-cigarettes is harmful. A 2012 study published in the science journal Inhalation Toxicology compared the effects of e-cigarette vapor and cigarette smoke on indoor air quality. The study concluded that electronic cigarettes produce very small exposures relative to tobacco cigarettes. The study also indicated that there is no apparent risk to human health from e-cigarette emissions based on the compounds analyzed.

But supporters of a ban say they'd prefer to be on the safe side. E-cigarette use more than doubled among U.S. middle and high school students from 2011 to 2012, according to data published by the CDC, and Miller said she believes they could be "a gateway product to a lifelong addiction [to] nicotine."

Others note that e-cigarettes and e-cigarette liquids are unregulated by the FDA or any other governmental organization.

"There is a lack of standards and quality control," said Susan Glover, a smoking-cessation counselor, during a recent Annapolis hearing. Glover said the amount of nicotine on e-cigarette fluid labels could be inaccurate, and there could be contaminants in containers.

The federal Food and Drug Administration does not endorse the use of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device, but some e-cigarette users said that it's the only method that's helped them quit smoking.

Industry advocates note that e-cigarette users can control the amount of nicotine in the fluid of their e-cigarettes — some don't use nicotine at all. They note the user can start off with a higher amount of nicotine and gradually reduce the amount.

Bans such as the one Miller proposed would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes even inside e-cigarette stores.

"Customers can come in and try different flavors," said Purdy, making reference to a row of small vials of e-cigarette flavorings on a counter in his store. "What are they going to do if they can't test out a product in an e-cigarette store?"

Some e-cigarette users said it's reasonable to ban e-cigarette use from some public places, such as restaurants. They say they try to be mindful of where they use e-cigarettes.

"It really depends on the setting," said Dorrien Bell, who uses e-cigarettes socially that do not contain nicotine. "I don't think people should blow lots of fumes" inside a restaurant.

Bell, 36, said he didn't use tobacco products before using e-cigarettes, but even without nicotine, he said he'd never blow fumes around his 8-year-old son, or even teenagers.

"I regard it as an adult activity," he said.

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