Jim Del Ricco tried everything to quit smoking. His three-pack-a-day habit had persisted for 32 years, and all the conventional methods for quitting such as patches, nicotine gum and even anti-depressant drugs designed to ease cravings had failed.
Then he discovered electronic cigarettes, and he hasn’t smoked a real one for more than a year. His wife, Jessica, with whom he lives in River Isle near Momence, couldn’t be happier. She doesn’t have to ask Jim to brush his teeth before kissing her anymore.
“He smells a lot better,” Jessica said.
The devices work by evaporating propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin laced with nicotine and inhaling it just like a tobacco cigarette. It gives smokers their fix, minus the tar, carbon monoxide and the bulk of the 4,000 chemicals tobacco cigarettes give off when they’re lit.
But is an e-cigarette a better alternative? The claim is hotly debated, but smokers such as Del Ricco don’t need convincing. He’s stopped coughing and feels better in general.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Absolutely,” Del Ricco said. “I can’t even measure how much improvement it’s been in my life.”
Most health officials have targeted the devices in the same manner they’ve dealt with tobacco cigarettes — banning their use where tobacco smoking is banned in five states and seeking new federal regulations on them. The mantra among health advocates has been that little is known about the health effects.
Legislation in Illinois to ban e-cigarettes everywhere tobacco cigarettes are banned failed last year, but state law does prohibit them at Illinois’ university campuses.
“We have a lot to learn about these products, but it’s clear there is a lot to be concerned about,” said James Martinez, spokesman for the American Lung Association. “We feel the American public needs to know the government isn’t regulating electronic cigarettes.”
The organization estimates there are nearly 500 brands of electronic cigarettes and vaporizers, which produce some 7,700 flavors in liquid form. The common denominator is nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco cigarettes.
Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are the primary constituent of most electronic cigarette liquids, both of which are used as federally approved food additive and for many personal care products such as soaps and toothpastes. The two chemicals form the vapor.
What concerns health advocates the most are the plethora of flavorings, variations and nicotine doses that are added to the liquid. The two chemicals, for example, are not approved for inhalation.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health both found detectable levels of cancer-causing toxins in electronic fluids they’ve tested — including those used in leading brands. But the vast majority of fluids have gone untested.
“We just don’t know what’s in them or the long-term consequences for health,” Martinez said. But the jury on electronic cigarettes among health officials isn’t entirely unanimous.
England’s national health agency went so far as to recommend the devices to help smokers quit, saying vaporizers are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco. A leading academic at Boston University’s School of Public Health has stated publicly there’s enough data to conclude vaporizers are much safer than cigarettes.
But the most staunch defender of the devices is the industry itself. Frank Cantrell, owner of S.I. Vapors in Bradley, said the argument has more to do with the influence of big tobacco and taxation than with health.
“They’ve been demonizing this so badly. I’m all for regulating it so people are safe,” Cantrell said. “They just want to see their money through taxes.”
For its part, the budding industry largely has regulated itself.
At Cantrell’s shop, he has a lab analysis, a batch number, a chain of custody report and a list of ingredients for every liquid he sells — just like for foods or pharmaceutical products. All of the labs he buys from have certified laboratory quality standards recognized by other industries. He said the industry is protecting itself in adopting such practices.
The problem Cantrell has with proposed FDA regulations is a provision that would ban all electronic cigarette products dating back to 2007. At the time, the industry was limited only to a couple of products offered by big tobacco companies — before the $1.5 billion industry’s boom.
“Everything that exists will go away. You’d have to buy something the big tobacco companies are selling,” Cantrell said. “The industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and the government can’t get a handle on it. That’s what scares me.”
Martinez said placing production and safety standards under FDA regulation would be a vast improvement over what’s happening now.
Even more, there’s a growing concern the public is accepting electronic cigarettes as a safe alternative. He notes the FDA does not recognize electronic cigarettes as a smoking cessation device — despite the industry’s frequent claims.
“At the end of the day, we consider it a tobacco product,” Martinez said. “It’s unfortunate the industry and their marketing is using the same old tactics. It’s trying to lure people in.”