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Puffing on e-cig questions

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The convenience store clerk was politely answering my questions about the e-cigarettes on the counter when a young man behind me chimed in.

“They're worth it,” he said in a convincing tone. “I love them.”

I turned around to face the e-cigarette fan, Nick Carr, who said he's been a smoker for three years. The aspiring actor from Pittsburgh's North Side said he tried e-cigs a few months ago, and they helped him quit — for about three months.

“For the feel of smoking an actual cigarette, it cured that craving,” said Carr, 23. “I felt better within days. Healthier. I could taste things better.”

Carr fits the description of the buyers that e-cigarette manufacturers are aiming for — smokers eager to quit. The gizmos are touted as an alternative to cigarettes, which long have been linked to more than a dozen types of cancer. E-cigarettes have no tobacco, which means they have none of the chemicals and nasty toxins in traditional cigarettes. A single e-cig costs about $8 but is reusable so you get more smokes. E-cigarettes do have nicotine, which can be very addictive.

Critics, including five Democratic U.S. senators, say e-cigarettes will eventually push teens into the dark halls of tobacco use. One of them, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said companies that make e-cigarettes in flavors such as cherry and bubblegum have a “very clear intent of creating a new generation of smokers.”

Concerns began to emerge after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing a rise in the percentage of middle school and high school students who tried an e-cigarette from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent in 2011.

That's roughly 1.78 million e-cigarette smokers, which is a pretty significant rise, said Dr. Hilary Tindle, a UPMC internist who specializes in smoking cessation. Tindle agreed the use of flavors is a surefire way to attract minors. Surprisingly, she also said e-cigs might be effective if they're found to be safe.

“If they help people quit smoking and don't cause other people to start, they would have a positive public health balance,” she said.

Although not a smoker, I picked up a pack of tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes to see for myself. I took one puff and instantly coughed, feeling a slight irritation on the back of my throat. That was it for me.

A co-worker who smokes about a pack a day found it satisfying, though it took a while to figure out how much nicotine he was inhaling. He exhaled what appeared to be smoke but was nothing more than vaporized nicotine. There was no odor — a big plus.

But here's the problem: No one can say whether or not they're safe. E-cigarettes haven't been studied by the Food and Drug Administration, which says they are working on regulations for them.

The lack of knowledge about the risks is worrisome. I'm no advocate of cigarettes, but at least you know what you're getting: cyanide, benzene, ammonia, etc.

The package I bought came with a disclaimer that read, in part: “Ingestion of the non-vaporized concentrated ingredients in the cartridges can be poisonous. If the cartridge is swallowed, seek medical assistance immediately.”

No kidding. Until we know more about these gadgets, we ought to be careful about embracing them. I still have a bad taste in my mouth.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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