WOODBURY, Minn. -- Bill Urbank was a smoker for 15 years. Until he stopped burning and began charging.
As manager of Smokeless Smoking in Woodbury, Urbank is surrounded by hundreds of electronic cigarettes, something he said had all the things he was addicted to in traditional cigarettes but with a much cleaner system.
While Urbank and other users of e-cigarettes are convinced the product is a safer alternative to tobacco, the Food and Drug Administration has questioned their safety after analyzing a few samples where traces of toxic chemicals including cancer-causing substances were found, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A fairly new trend, e-cigarette use has been growing in the nation and in Minnesota, as smokers look for ways to get their nicotine fix without having to stand outside in the bitter cold.
“With cigarettes you’re ingesting 4,000 chemicals,” Urbank said. “Here there is four.”
The trend has made its way to Woodbury with the new store called Smokeless Smoking. The store, which opened last month, is dedicated to selling e-cigarette devices and liquids.
Appealing to hobbyists and those trying to quit, the store has a lounge equipped with a big screen television, books and games. Flavors similar to Marlboros, menthols and Camels along with fruity vapors like pomegranate, caramel apple pie, cherry and licorice are stored behind the counter.
“There is a feel to it, it hits the back of your throat similar to cigarette smoke,” Urbank said. “There is a ritual to it that mimics smoking in a way.”
The battery-operated devices are designed to resemble cigarettes with the same hand motion that satisfies the habit and social aspect of smoking without potential long-term side effects.
But because they haven’t been around as long as traditional tobacco, experts say there isn’t enough evidence to prove e-cigarettes are totally harmless.
Dr. Saurin Patel, critical care pulmonologist with HealthEast Care System, said although studies show e-cigarettes have fewer toxins than traditional tobacco, they’re still not completely free of chemicals, including carcinogenic compounds. Some are even labeled nicotine free when in fact they include some of the compounds.
“Because of lack of regulatory oversight, most agencies recommend not forming a conclusion about e-cigarettes based on a few studies,” Patel said. “Each e-cigarette manufacturer might have its own formulation, and we don’t know exactly what type of compound will be found in different e-cigarettes.”
Citing a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, Patel said about 1.8 million young Americans have tried e-cigarettes, and the number of high school and middle school students who’ve tried them doubled between 2011 and 2012.
“Could the use of e-cigarettes because they so closely resemble cigarettes and provide nicotine to the body, could that lead to (young people) taking up smoking when they become adults?” he said. “Those are the long-term behavior patterns that we don’t know as of yet because we don’t have these long-term studies to tell us.”
Studies currently under way may provide a little more information on whether e-cigarettes need to be strictly regulated, experts agree.
However, legislators in favor of streamlining the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act are proposing to add e-cigarettes to the law as soon as next year.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, recently announced that she plans to introduce a bill during the 2014 legislative session.
“Right now, we’ve got a patchwork system where local governments and even individual businesses make their own rules,” she said. “It’s creating a lot of confusion. My bill removes any doubt as to where e-cigarettes can be used by applying the same regulations we have for traditional tobacco products.”
Minnesota cities from Ely to Hopkins have enacted temporary moratoriums on indoor e-cigarette use, while others like Mankato have decided to postpone decisions on whether to regulate the product, according to Kahn.
Officials in Washington County have not taken a position on regulating e-cigarettes in public places.
Public Health Director Lowell Johnson said the department will continue to follow the studies, especially since chemicals within the vapors are raising concerns.
And then there is the societal impact that e-cigarettes may have.
“Young people that see that as acceptable behavior,” Johnson said. “Does it continue to glamorize smoking?”
Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said e-cigarette brick and mortar stores and manufacturers need to emphasize their goal of helping people quit smoking instead of promoting the product as a hobby acceptable in public places.
“I wouldn’t want my kids to be inhaling this vapor at this point either without any knowledge,” he said. “We don’t want them to be getting nicotine in any way, shape or form.”
Schoen said he suspects the Legislature will wait for more research before taking any action on Kahn’s bill to regulate e-cigarettes.
“I don’t know that will be priority this year,” he said. “I’m not catching that as a signal.”
Fans of the product, such as Jason Thompson, who quit smoking after 27 years, say e-cigarettes have been instrumental in helping them quit.
E-cigarettes have an atomizer that heats up liquid containing nicotine. The amount of nicotine can be customized from a small percentage to nothing at all.
“It’s really nice not to have the smell of tobacco on you, in your house ...” Thompson said. “And if you have people close to you that don’t smoke, this doesn’t affect them.”
Patel said many of his patients who’ve tried e-cigarettes as a cessation aid like them because they’re so similar to traditional tobacco without the intense chemicals.
Additionally, studies have shown the success of e-cigarettes in helping people quit smoking is fairly equivalent to nicotine patches, gum and pills, he said.
“But also quite a few patients are concerned about the long-term consequences,” Patel said. “Smoking e-cigarettes is clearly not as healthy as not smoking cigarettes period.”