Users still ‘lighting up’ e-cigs despite warnings

It takes one fluid motion for James Sykes Jr. to display the main reasons users swear by electronic cigarettes.

Sykes, the manager of a Smoking Everywhere kiosk in the Westfield Sarasota Square mall, reaches into his suit pocket, snags the slender cylinder, takes a long drag, exhales an odorless vapor and returns the e-cigarette to his pocket.

He’s “smoking” in a public place, not in seclusion outside.

He’s puffing at his own pace, getting a nicotine fix without inhaling the tar and many of the carcinogens that come with smoking tobacco cigarettes.

And the best benefit of all, according to Sykes: He hasn’t touched a regular cigarette for eight months after smoking for 20 years.

“I don’t want to stop smoking,” Sykes said. “I just don’t want to kill myself doing it. I enjoy the habit.”

But despite devotees’ testimonials, e-cigarettes are a habit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other health officials are warning people to avoid.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices, predominantly manufactured in China, that contain cartridges filled with liquid nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. A heating element in the e-cigarette turns the chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.

The FDA issued a report July 22 announcing that e-cigarettes contain carcinogens, including nitrosamines, and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze. The report also alleged that e-cigarettes and their cartridges — available in orange, vanilla and strawberry flavors, among others, and variable levels of nicotine — are being marketed and sold to children.

“The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products and how they are marketed to the public,” said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA’s commissioner of food and drugs.

While proponents say e-cigarette vapor is safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, which contains much higher levels of the carcinogens and toxic chemicals, health officials are unconvinced.

“There’s a safe limit of that particular chemical, but not necessarily as an inhaled substance,” Dana Kaye, executive director of the American Lung Association of Oregon, said of diethylene glycol.

Kaye also reminds e-cigarette users they are still inhaling an extremely addictive drug, nicotine.

“My fear is, people are using them thinking that they’re not going to get addicted,” she said. “We’re going to have a new culture of folks hooked on nicotine that weren’t previously.”

The FDA report led the state of Oregon to ban the sale of e-cigarettes and sue Florida-based Smoking Everywhere, a leading e-cigarette retailer with two Sarasota locations, for making false safety claims and marketing its wares to children.

The Florida attorney general’s office has joined a multistate effort, led by Oregon, to investigate e-cigarettes Njoy, Smoking Everywhere and Smoking Anywhere, according to communications director Sandi Copes. Only Oregon has banned sales, though.

Smoking Everywhere in turn has sued the FDA, which has been stopping shipments from China while claiming e-cigarettes are an unapproved drug or drug device and therefore under the FDA’s jurisdiction.

The mixed messages concern Iveta Soltes, a 43-year-old Siesta Key homemaker and Smoking Everywhere customer who admits she would like to see more definitive test results, especially because the product comes from China.

Soltes said she hasn’t smoked regular cigarettes for about six months after taking up e-cigarettes early this year. She had smoked about a pack a day since she was 15.

“I actually discovered them (e-cigarettes) last year, but when I told my friends I was going to try them, they said ‘Oh my God, that will never work,’ ” Soltes said. “Now I do big advertising for Smoking Everywhere. Every time I go out, people come up and ask me questions about it.”

Soltes said she quit smoking once using Chantix, a prescription medication that blocks nicotine receptors in the brain, but found herself missing the habit.

“I helps to have a real type of cigarette in your hand,” she said.

Sykes said the negative news about e-cigarettes concerned him initially, enough that he spoke to owner Jill Kwan about finding a new job.

But his own experiences — he breathes easier and plays basketball without coughing up black phlegm like he did when he smoked — and the testimonials he gets from fellow users brought him back. He shows a notepad full of names and telephone numbers of satisfied customers.

“I told her I was going to quit,” Sykes said of his talk with Kwan. “I refuse to sell somebody something I feel is harming them. But everyone of my customers is 100 percent satisfied.”