Andy Stockert loves his cigars. But he can't smoke them in the Harnett County barn where he keeps his horses.
So a couple of years ago, Stockert switched to electronic cigarettes. He puffs them when he can't light up the cigars he prefers.
Beyond the practical benefit of being able to smoke in places where it's normally outlawed, Stockert says e-cigarettes have other advantages over traditional smoking.
"They don't leave that nasty breath," Stockert said. "They don't leave an odor when you use them."
Since North Carolina banned most indoor smoking in January 2010, e-cigarettes have emerged as an alternative. Smokers have been lighting them up in bars and restaurants, where tobacco is not permitted.
"I see people walking around smoking them all the time," said Ben Anstead, manager of Anstead's Tobacco Co. in Cross Creek Mall. "I've had a number of people who say, 'If you're going to smoke, smoke an e-cigarette.' "
Electronic cigarettes are electrical or battery-powered inhalers that vaporize a liquid solution into an aerosol mist, which the user inhales. They contain no tobacco, but most do use nicotine.
The amount of nicotine in an e-cigarette varies depending on the type of liquid used. Some solutions contain no nicotine, while others have as much or even more than regular cigarettes.
The cigarettes come with chargers that can be plugged into home or car adapters. Many companies offer a variety of flavors, including tobacco, menthol or even grape and strawberry.
Anstead said he started selling e-cigarettes a few years ago. He said there was an initial flurry of interest in the product, but it gradually subsided over time.
"We used to have a waiting list," he said. "We couldn't get them in fast enough."
Anstead said he attributes the drop-off in sales to the fact that more places, including many convenience stores, are now selling e-cigarettes. Today, Anstead said he probably sells four or five kits a month of Encore brand e-cigarettes.
Erika Sward is the American Lung Association's assistant vice president for national advocacy. She said there is no evidence to show that e-cigarettes are safe or that they are effective in helping people quit smoking.
"If people are concerned about the health consequences of smoking, they should talk to their doctor, or they can call 1-800-QUITNOW, or use one of the seven medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration," Sward said.
But Anstead said many people see e-cigarettes as a way to curb their tobacco use.
"It's not a magic bullet," Anstead said. "It won't make people stop smoking, but it could help them cut down if they're in the right mindset."
In 2010, the Federal Drug Administration unsuccessfully tried to block the sale of some e-cigarette brands, saying they were being marketed as smoking-cessation devices, which the agency regulates. Today, most brands don't claim to help people quit smoking, but instead tout the fact that they contain no tobacco or tar and can usually be smoked in places where regular cigarettes are prohibited.
Anstead said people also like that e-cigarettes don't produce an odor that clings to smokers' breath and clothing. The cigarettes emit a water vapor that quickly dissipates.
Near Anstead's Tobacco in Cross Creek Mall, Nadav Ostrowsky was manning a kiosk for Smoke-Free brand e-cigarettes, hoping to interest passers-by in trying e-cigarettes. The kiosk sells the cigarettes in a variety of flavors.
Ostrowsky said response has been good. A lot of people like the novelty of being able to smoke indoors.
"People who do smoke really like it," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the right flavor."
Zubair Syed is the manager of a BP Family Fare store on Raeford Road that sells Krave electronic cigarettes. A starter kit goes for $19.99, while a car adapter is $9.99, and refills are $12.99.
Syed said the items are not big sellers. He said the store hands informational fliers about e-cigarettes to people who buy regular smokes, but most people are too busy to check them out. The fliers tell potential customers how to use e-cigarettes and stress the fact that they contain no tobacco.
Since e-cigarettes are not subject to the state's indoor smoking ban, it's up to individual bar and restaurant owners to decide whether they want to let people use the devices in their establishments.
Chris's Steak House on Raeford Road was one of many local restaurants that added an outdoor smoking patio after the indoor smoking ban went into effect.
Chris's owner, Luke Poulous, said "one or two" customers have lit up e-cigarettes in the restaurant in the three years since. He said he has never heard a complaint from a customer that someone was smoking inside.
"You can't smell it. There's nothing offensive about it," he said. "They blow the smoke out, and by the time it gets up to here, it's evaporated."
Rachael Randell is a bartender at Louie's Sports Bar and Pub on Robeson Street. She said customers will occasionally light up e-cigarettes at the bar. At first, Randell said, she was taken aback.
"I've actually yelled at people for smoking inside," Randell said. "I bought one person a drink afterwards because I felt bad about it."
Randell said she knows of some people who tried to quit smoking by going to e-cigarettes but ended up going back to tobacco.
Stockert doesn't smoke regular cigarettes but said he thinks e-cigarettes might be a good alternative for someone trying to kick the habit. If nothing else, Stockert said, e-cigarettes attract attention.
"I actually had a sheriff's deputy in a Home Depot chase me down one time and ask me about them," Stockert said. "He said he was trying to quit cigarettes and asked me if I thought they would work."
Staff writer Rodger Mullen can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3561.
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