With names such as Vapor City and BJz Vape Shop, new businesses popping
up around Sacramento make clear they're not selling old-fashioned smokes.
These vendors hawk electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, whose sales have skyrocketed in the past few years. E-cigarette enthusiasts call themselves vapers, and many view "vaping" as a benign alternative to actual smoking -- albeit one that still delivers a nicotine kick.
Legislators and health advocates aren't convinced.
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, has introduced legislation that would treat e-cigarettes -- which use a battery to vaporize a solution of fogging agents, flavors and nicotine when the user drags on them or presses a button -- like cigarettes and ban them from restaurants, schools and workplaces.
Health groups, including the California Medical Association, warn that e-cigarettes are not medically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are subject to little in the way of quality control.
"Health professionals are very alarmed," Corbett said. When more than 150 opponents of her bill, SB 648, began vaping en masse in the hallways of the Capitol, passers-by coughed and choked on the vapors, she said. She cited a recent study from UC Riverside that shows small levels of heavy metals in secondhand e-cigarette vapor.
"These are cigarettes," the senator said. "They might be fancy, high-tech cigarettes, but they're still cigarettes."
Introduced in 2004, e-cigarettes -- primarily made in China -- have attracted a following. Industry revenue has doubled every year since 2008 and is anticipated to hit $1 billion this year. Big U.S. tobacco companies have taken note and are rolling out their own e-cigarette lines to compensate for falling cigarette sales.
To Barry Smith, who owns the Electric Cigarette Lounge in downtown Sacramento, the devices are "miraculous." Smith and other e-cigarette boosters say the product can help smokers get their nicotine fix without the stigma or fatal side effects of cigarettes.
Ryan Galvan of Sacramento counts himself among the converted. After smoking Marlboro Reds for 18 years, he and his wife now "vape" instead, a much more economical habit.
Today, he said, "it only costs us roughly $20 per week, whereas before, we were spending $85, $90."
E-cigarettes have become more fashionable. Some new models are less bulky and hard to distinguish from cigarettes.
Their growing popularity has triggered a fierce debate about how e-cigarettes should be regulated, and whether they pose significant health risks. A Senate committee analysis of Corbett's bill notes that the cigarette industry has successfully resisted having the product regulated as a drug by the FDA. In response, anti-smoking activists are pushing to have them regulated like tobacco.
Stan Glantz, a professor of tobacco control at UC San Francisco who supports Corbett's bill, said e-cigarette companies brought the increased scrutiny upon themselves.
The companies, he said, "talk out of both sides of their mouths. When it's convenient to be a cigarette to avoid FDA (medical) regulations, they're a cigarette. And then other times, they say, 'We're not a cigarette.' "
In 2010, Corbett succeeded in passing legislation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Her current bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting
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