10 Things E-Cigarettes Won’t Tell You

The cigarettes of the future could be safer, cheaper and less taboo than the smokes of the past. But they also threaten to upend decades of anti smoking efforts.

1:) “We’re Big Tobacco in disguise.”

When electronic cigarettes made their debut in the U.S. about five years ago, they seemed like a threat to the traditional cigarette industry.

The battery-powered devices, which turn nicotine-laced liquid into vapor, promised a less harmful and more socially acceptable alternative to combustible paper-and-tar cigarettes—and they were cheaper, not being subject to hefty tobacco taxes.

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Already, the underdog industry is on track to hit nearly $2 billion in sales for 2013, tripling its 2012 figures, says Wells Fargo WFC -1.19% tobacco analyst Bonnie Herzog. And although the market for traditional cigarettes is still far bigger—topping $80 billion—Ms. Herzog predicts that e-cigarettes could surpass old-fashioned smokes in popularity within a decade.

But Big Tobacco brooks no challenge. The Big Three— Altria Group, MO +0.18% Reynolds American RAI -0.28% and Lorillard—have all made forays into e-cigarettes in the past two years.

2:) “We can’t promise this won’t kill you.”

Antismoking advocates and public-health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alike concede that e-cigarettes have fewer toxins than regular cigarettes and none of the tar.

But that’s no guarantee e-cigs won’t give you cancer or kill you the way tobacco-burning cigarettes are known to do.

The e-cigarette industry will go only so far as to say the products are “less harmful” than traditional smokes: “It’s better than a cigarette,” says Eric Criss, president of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Group, adding that the organization doesn’t want nonsmokers to start using the product.

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3:) “This probably isn’t the best way to quit smoking.”

E-cigarettes aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a smoking-cessation product, but users and advocates say that’s one of the devices’ biggest selling points. A Gallup survey of former smokers in July found that 3% credited electronic cigarettes with helping them quit, compared with 2% who cited prescription drugs and 1% who used nicotine gum.(The rest cited everything from will power to hypnosis.)

Still, health experts worry that smokers will just switch to e-cigarettes, or use them additionally, instead of quitting cold turkey.

4:) “We’re advertising like it’s 1960—while we still can.”

You won’t see a Surgeon General’s warning on e-cig packages. And you will see them advertised on TV, from which ads for traditional cigarettes have been banned since 1971. And you’ll see them promoted by celebrities—another no-no for cigarette marketers.

Indeed, there are now an estimated 250 brands of e-cigarettes sold in stores and online, and virtually no federal regulations on them.

The FDA plans to issue new rules soon, however, and state lawmakers have tried to improvise a few of their own. E-cigarette industry representatives, for their part, say they are just as eager for regulation, “especially to keep electronic cigarettes out of the hands of children,” Mr. Criss says.

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5:) “We defy categorization.”

The e-cigarette industry says it welcomes regulation, but it’s also shown some ambivalence: On the one hand, it doesn’t want to be grouped with cigarettes, not only because it has staked its success on being an alternative to those products, but because being lumped in with them would put restrictions on who can buy e-cigs and how they’re advertised.

On the other hand, it doesn’t want to see its product shelved. To be categorized as safe and therapeutic, the industry would have to go through years of trials and FDA approval as a drug or drug-delivery device, effectively taking e-cigs off the market entirely, Mr. Criss says.

The lack of categorization probably won’t last much longer, however. The FDA is expected to issue long-awaited rules regulating e-cigs as a tobacco product this fall.

6:) “We’re cheaper than cigarettes because we aren’t taxed like cigarettes.”

E-cigarettes’ biggest advantage over traditional cigarettes is their price, market analysts say. Regular cigarettes carry excise taxes of up to about 50% of the retail price; e-cigarettes, for the most part, are subject only to sales tax, says Ms. Herzog.

Regulation, however, and accompanying taxes are likely to increase prices. Ms. Herzog predicts that e-cigarettes will be taxed 5% next year, 10% by 2015 and 20% by 2019.

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7:) “Kids love us.”

If there’s one thing that the e-cigarette industry and the public-health community agree on, it’s that e-cigarettes aren’t for children. Many kids, on the other hand, seem to disagree.

The proportion of middle- and high-school kids who have used e-cigarettes doubled to nearly 7%, or almost 2 million students, between 2011 and 2012, according to a recent report by the CDC.

What’s more, “there’s a substantial concern that e-cigarettes will serve as a gateway product to nicotine addiction for a new generation of young people,” says Michael Fiore, a physician and director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.

8:) “We’re bringing smoking back indoors…”

As cigarette smokers have been pushed ever farther out into the cold—often as far as 25 feet from the entrance of restaurants, bars and even outdoor spaces like parks and beaches—e-cigarette smokers have moved indoors.

The devices, which emit vapor that is less noticeable and odorous than smoke, and don’t involve flames or smoldering butts that pose a fire hazard, have largely been tolerated if not fully welcomed in places where smoking is banned, including workplaces.

Some policy makers have recently stomped out e-cigarettes, applying smoke-free laws to e-cigs, too. The University of California, where researchers recently found that “many of the elements” in e-cig vapor “are known to cause respiratory distress and disease,” has banned e-cigs at all of its campuses.

9:) “…and back into aircraft.”

Lately, airlines have had to chastise not just passengers, but their own flight attendants for smoking—er, “vaping”—e-cigarettes on planes. The Department of Transportation doesn’t explicitly prohibit e-cigs but plans to issue new rules prohibiting them by mid-2014. And many airlines have explicitly banned them.

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10:) “E-joints and e-crackpipes are the new e-cig.”

The season premiere of Saturday Night Live in September included a mock commercial for “e-meth,” devices like e-cigarettes supposedly containing the illegal drug crystal meth. The spoof was funny because it seemed outrageous, but e-cigarette experts say that using the devices to vaporize illegal drugs isn’t so far-fetched.

Some users say e-cigarettes can easily vaporize a liquid form of marijuana, and Dr. Fiore cites reports that e-cigs could be used to consume crack cocaine. “It sure concerns me that there are new methods to deliver illegal substances, particularly to young people,” he says.

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