For well over 100 years, tobacco companies have had a product people loved, with a toxic catch. Cigarettes don’t just cause cancer (of the lung, throat, mouth, pancreas, bladder, nose, and more); they can also lead to heart attacks, strokes, and autoimmune diseases. Some 443,000 Americans die from smoking each year. But 44 million Americans still smoke because, as the tobacco companies know, cigarettes deliver an addictive, pleasurable drug: nicotine.
Now the three biggest tobacco companies have a new, tobacco-free way to deliver nicotine. Enthusiasts say “vaping” an e-cigarette—which relies on battery power to vaporize a liquid nicotine solution that the user inhales—delivers all the biochemical rewards and none of the lethal risks, and that it’s time to regulate nicotine like coffee, another stimulant. But can they convince their opponents? “We’re seeing a radical change in how people sell nicotine to the human brain,” says David Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation.
The antitobacco community is wary. Big tobacco introduced “light” cigarettes in the 1960s with the promise of a healthy alternative, and they turned out to be just as deadly as the originals. Antismoking advocates aren’t primarily worried that e-cigarettes will do as much harm as regular ones—this would be nearly impossible. They fret that the devices will keep people smoking. The “poly-tobacco dilettante” could be a new breed of smoker, Abrams says. These users might “vape” indoors and other places where conventional cigarettes are banned (fueling their nicotine addiction) and still smoke traditional cigarettes wherever they did before e-cigarettes entered the U.S. market in 2007.
A “poly-caffeine dilettante” is easy to imagine. People shift easily from morning coffees to mid-morning lattes to midday energy drinks to late-afternoon Frappuccinos. E-proponents want you to remember how readily you order another cup of coffee as you think about the health effects of vaping. Both caffeine and nicotine can raise the heart rate, cause nausea, and even kill, but only in extraordinarily high doses that are hard to come by. “Nicotine has similar qualities as caffeine,” says Ray Story, head of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group. “The nicotine itself is not a deadly product.… If this product is sold within the parameters of what we feel is a responsible product, this product is basically harmless.”
The science of e-cigarettes is young. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration studied two of the brands on the market and found diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical present in antifreeze, in one sample and nitrosamines, which are among the worst-known carcinogens, in others. Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society, pointed out that while propylene glycol, a key ingredient in the “e-liquid,” is an FDA-approved chemical for food, little is known about the long-term effects of inhaling it.
Meanwhile, e-cigarette users are developing their own “café culture,” encouraged by e-cigarette manufacturers. The Lorillard label blu offers e-cigarette cases that emit a signal and notify users when other blu cases are nearby—a kind of Tinder for the vaping set. The odds of finding a match are growing: Roughly one-fifth of adults who smoke conventional cigarettes have tried their electronic counterparts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February. Six percent of all adults have tried them, almost double the percentage in 2010.
Users tout the benefits of vaping in online forums such as Planet of the Vapes, where aficionados review “e-juices”—different flavor packs—and discuss custom e-cigarette modifications. It took decades for high-end coffee to become widespread in the U.S., but you can already buy “locally made, artisanal” e-juice online from a boutique in—where else?—San Francisco.
Looming regulations could dampen some of these developments. The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave FDA the authority to regulate the products, and the agency is expected to do so soon. It will regulate e-cigarettes, which derive their nicotine from tobacco leaves, as tobacco products, and it has the authority to block manufacturers from advertising on TV, require them to list their ingredients, and more. Some cities and states have already begun discussing regulations treating e-cigarettes like their combustible counterparts. The California Senate approved legislation to that effect in May.
Because of e-cigarettes’ connection to conventional smoking, they will grow up in a different, and almost certainly tougher, regulatory environment than caffeine, which is also getting a closer look from FDA. In April, the agency said it would investigate the safety of caffeine in food, and Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, wondered whether the agency should limit caffeine in certain products. Caffeine withdrawal, joining nicotine withdrawal, was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders this spring.
Still, it’s clear that the coffee culture is here to stay—and may be stronger now than ever before. If e-cigarette proponents can convince regulators, antismoking advocates, and consumers that their product is another version of coffee (and if the growing body of scientific work doesn’t find traumatic long-term health risks), big tobacco may finally have a chance to reclaim some of its old cachet—not to mention market share and cultural relevance.