Inside e-cigarettes: Debate continues over health risks - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Inside e-cigarettes: Debate continues over health risks

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Users push a button to activate a battery operated "mod" Users push a button to activate a battery operated "mod"
Adding e-juice to a cotton wick inside the e-cigarette "mod" Adding e-juice to a cotton wick inside the e-cigarette "mod"
Electricity heats up a wire coil around the cotton wick Electricity heats up a wire coil around the cotton wick
Some e-cigarettes have larger wicks Some e-cigarettes have larger wicks
Vapor coming off the wick (with mouthpiece removed) Vapor coming off the wick (with mouthpiece removed)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- More and more people are using electronic cigarettes to help them quit tobacco, even though the devices are not approved for smoking cessation by the Food and Drug Administration.

E-cigarette users say the vapor is much less toxic than cigarette smoke because there is no tar from tobacco combustion.

Opponents warn that not enough is known about the long-term effects of e-cigarette vapor.

It's called "vaping," not smoking, and for people who want to try it out, there are plenty of options at Vape Quality in Pacific Beach. The e-cigarette shop on Fanuel Street offers 40 different flavors to inhale.

The exhaled cloud may look like smoke but it's actually vaporized liquid that usually contains varying levels of nicotine.

Owner Barry Herzberg is a former tobacco smoker who used e-cigs to kick the habit.

"It works. It addresses all the issues with smoking. It doesn't aggravate the smoker to the point where they just want to go back or they start to eat," Herzberg said.

Herzberg said he opened Vape Quality to offer high-end alternatives to the cheap e-cigarettes sold in convenience and liquor stores.

"Most people, when they start to vape, they are quitting smoking and so they start off with a level of nicotine that is equal to their cigarettes," said Herzberg.

The vaping devices he sells are called "mods," which are modified versions of electronic cigarettes. They are battery operated devices that use a wire coil to heat up a cotton wick soaked with flavored liquid, called e-juice.

Herzberg says he orders his e-juice from well-known suppliers.

"There are some large companies out there doing a spectacular job – organic farming, distilling their own products – making really nice flavors," said Herzberg.

Other e-cigarette users mix their own e-juice.

Since the industry is not regulated, pretty much anyone can go online and order ingredients, including highly concentrated, liquid nicotine.

The e-juice is made with a clear, liquid carbohydrate base of either vegetable glycerol or propylene glycol or a mixture of both. It is a humectant liquid base that is also commonly used in food products, cough syrup, injectable medications, even asthma inhalers.

It's what they use at Ciggy's on the Beach, another shop in Pacific Beach.

"You need pharmaceutical grade stuff to put in here. You can't just be like hey, I want this, this, this, and make it at home," said store manager Phillip No.

The base liquid is mixed with a variety of food flavorings.

"We got something called monkey piss," said No. "Basically it's banana flavoring, pretty cool name because it looks like monkey piss."

No said Ciggy's sends their e-juice out to a lab, which adds various amounts of liquid nicotine to the product.  E-cig users typically reduce the amount of nicotine over time.

CBS News 8 wanted to know if the e-juice was unhealthy to inhale.

"Well, they put the flavoring in cupcakes. If that was the case, all these little girls would be dying of cupcake poisoning," said No.

"Have you ever baked cookies from an oven and smelled the vapor?" he asked.

But one local expert said she has concerns about the health effects of vaping, not only on those using e-cigs but also on people in close proximity.

Gena Knutson is a manager with the Tobacco Control Program at the Vista Community Clinic.

"The vapor does contain toxic compounds and human carcinogens," said Knutson, citing a recent review of scientific literature on e-cigarettes by the German Cancer Research Center.

"Using e-cigarettes is definitely less risky than using conventional cigarettes but there still are chemical compounds in there," said Knutson. "We don't know enough about e-cigarettes to consider them safe or not, and we would like to see them regulated like tobacco products."

Knutson also worries about children trying e-cigs.

"Because they're being enticed by flavors, and then going on to use conventional cigarettes, and develop a lifelong addiction to tobacco," said Knutson.

In California, it's against the law for minors to purchase e-cigarettes. Even so, the Center for Disease Control says more children than ever are trying e-cigarettes.

The FDA is expected to announce new restrictions on electronic cigarette products before the end of the year.

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