MISHAWAKA — After just six years of smoking cigarettes, 22-year-old Paul Enyeart had already developed "smokers cough," the unsightly hacking and spitting up of tar and other smoking-related residue. The Mishawaka man wanted to quit, he said, but had trouble breaking the habit. Even more than the nicotine, he missed the associated mannerisms -- the constant hand-to-mouth motion, the subtle lip and head movements. His new electronic cigarette is designed to replace both. "It feels the exact same, with the motion and the sensation of nicotine," Enyeart said of the slender, penlike device. "But," he added, "I'm not going to die." Developed in China in 2003 as an alternative to other nicotine replacement products such as chewing gum, patches and inhalers, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have become increasingly fashionable in recent years. The plastic, battery-operated devices, often designed to closely resemble actual cigarettes, turn nicotine into a vapor that is then inhaled by users. Manufacturers market them as a healthier alternative to conventional cigarettes, and as a way around no-smoking laws. Marty Smith, of Valparaiso, opened his first e-cigarette shop in Hobart a few years ago. He now operates seven locations in northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland area under the name Smokey Smokes. In mid-October, he began selling the devices from a kiosk inside University Park Mall, which is where Enyeart made his purchase. The eLight Elite e-cigarettes Smith sells retail for $119 and come with five nicotine cartridges. Each cartridge contains about "190 to 200 puffs," the equivalent of about a pack of cigarettes. Replacement cartridges run 15 for $25. The devices are selling well, Smith said. "In the two months we've been here, we've sold between 250 and 300 cigarettes," he said. "Our big problem is nobody knows we're here." A smoker for 35 years, Smith said he once consumed two packs a day. He quit after developing prostate cancer, he said, and then stumbled upon e-cigarettes. "There are only five ingredients in here," he said, holding the device up for inspection, "and they're all harmless." Whether that is true is the subject of debate. Buyer beware? In July, the Food and Drug Administration tested nicotine cartridges from two leading e-cigarette manufacturers and found they contained "detectable levels of carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed." Along with other public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and American Cancer Society, the FDA has questioned the health claims made by e-cigarette manufacturers, including that their products are somehow safer than conventional cigarettes. Smith admits to questions about the safety of some e-cigarette brands, but insists eLight e-cigarettes are not harmful. The manufacturer tests each batch of nicotine cartridges for contaminants, he said, and discards tainted batches. "The product is safe," he said. "The nicotine isn't going to kill you." Maybe not, but according to Paul Guentert, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, nicotine contributes to hypertension and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. It also is highly addictive. "Nicotine is, in other parts of the world, used as a pesticide," Guentert said. "It is a neuro-toxin, and in high enough doses ... if a child ingests nicotine, it can be fatal." The vapor produced by e-cigarettes is also unhealthy, he said. "What I tell people in general about smoking is that your lungs were developed to take in clean, fresh air," he said, "and anything beyond that is usually not good for you." In other words, the only safe cigarette is an extinguished cigarette. Staff writer Erin Blasko: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6187
Marty Smith, of Valparaiso, demonstrates an electronic cigarette at his kiosk inside Mishawaka's University Park Mall.
Tribune Photo/JIM RIDER