DECATUR – The small, plastic cylinders look, feel and even smoke like tobacco cigarettes, but the devices are nothing like the original and government agencies don't know what to do with them.
Electronic cigarettes have surged in popularity in the past two years. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are plastic and metal battery-operated devices that often mimic the look of a cigarette. Some even look like pens or USB drives, according to a January report by the Food and Drug Administration about the devices. The e-cigarettes heat a liquid solution, nicotine or flavoring, creating an odorless vapor that users inhale, a process called “vaping.”
Nicotine in e-cigarettes is absorbed slower than traditional tobacco cigarettes, according the FDA, so they are less addicting. Because e-cigarettes are new to the market, there has been few studies about vaping or the claim that vaping helps people quit smoking.
The e-cigarette shop BloNoSmoke in Lincoln has been operating for more than a year now and a Decatur location opened last month.
Trent Crumpler, an assistant manager for the Lincoln shop, said the majority of their customers are tobacco smokers trying to quit like he did. Vaping mimics the three urges most people quitting traditional cigarettes have: the hand-to-mouth motion, nicotine and exhalation.
“Our basic kits provide all of that because it's basically replacing your cigarette,” Crumpler said.
E-cigarettes and the ingredients making up the liquids are not currently regulated by the FDA.
An Illinois law, in effect Jan. 1, already bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. In January, Chicago expanded its tobacco regulation to include e-cigarettes. And the devices must be stowed behind store counters in city limits. The Department of Transportation updated its policy to clarify the ban on smoking in aircrafts included the new devices in 2013.
However, the 2008 law banning smoking in all public places, including offices, theaters, restaurants and bars does not include e-cigarettes.
As of yet, the Illinois Department of Public Health does not have a stance on e-cigarettes.
"The FDA has not really given us much to go on, we're in a holding pattern," said IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold.
Arnold said there's not enough information to make a decision and they are waiting for word from the national agency before taking a stance.
“A lot of states are waiting for it,” she said.
The biggest question Crumpler said they get about e-cigarettes is based on reports of unhealthy chemical ingredients in the liquids. He said some vapors being are made from poor ingredients. BloNoSmoke carries vapors with four ingredients: propylene glycerol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine and flavorings. Each is individually approved by the FDA for other food and personal care uses.
In the two years vaping has been popular, no agency has reported any short-term health effects. There is also little risk from second-hand exposure to nicotine from the exhaled vapor.
“It's more of a situation where the government isn't really sure what to do with us,” Crumpler said, adding that taxing is a possibility.
He said most of the regulations have come from a local level, with cities and townships regulating them like cigarettes for now.
“A lot of it has to do with vaping is new,” Crumpler said. “And people are afraid of what they don't know.”
For those looking to quit smoking, the IDPH funds the Illinois Tobacco Quitline in association the American Lung Association. A staff of registered nurses, registered respiratory therapists and smoking cessation counselors guide people through steps to quit smoking.
The Illinois Tobacco Quitline can be reached at 1-866-784-8937 or online at www.quityes.org.