Electronic cigarettes—battery sticks that heat up a liquid solution of propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, nicotine and food additives—may be only six years old, but their use mirrors the older and dangerous addiction of analog smoking.
But they are very different. There's no smell and no fire, plus they don't leave behind ashes, as electronic cigarette vendors rush to point out. Those are key selling points in their marketing schtick, which often features a "vape anywhere" message. (In fact, many still market their products that way.) Taking that to heart, early users whipped out their e-cigs wherever they went, gleefully getting their nicotine fix in places where regular smoking was not allowed.
Bewildered business owners simply didn't know what to do. It looked like smoking—many e-cigs even intentionally resemble traditional cigarettes—but it wasn't.
As so often happens in technology, this invention went from curiosity to phenomenon before the laws could catch up. According to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, e-cigarettes have grabbed as many as 10 to 14% of the 44 million tobacco users in the U.S. And sales are on track to reach $1.7 billion by the end of the year. Despite the success—or perhaps because of it—the Food and Drug Administration has been eyeing the product with suspicion. But even though it threatens to ban online sales, the FDA still hasn't actually regulated the devices.
Researchers haven't managed to clarify things either. For every German or French study that says e-cigs are harmful, there's a researcher from Boston or Philadelphia who says they offer very little risk to health or should be actively pursued for harm reduction from cigarettes.
It's a quagmire of confusing findings. And well-meaning lawmakers and businesses, not knowing what else to do, are erring on the side of caution.