E-cigarettes creating buzz despite risks

by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Aug 07 2009 01:09 PM | Updated as of Aug 12 2009 07:01 AM

MANILA - "Want to quit smoking? Try electronic cigarettes - the odorless, cancer-free, and healthy way to smoke!"

The sheer novelty of this claim is probably what attracted smokers and non-smokers alike to electronic cigarettes or "e-cigarettes," a product that has created a lot of buzz in the Philippine market in the past month. It is typically marketed as a "safer way" to smoke or quit smoking.

Marketing executive Baroy Morga, 31, is virtually the only e-cigarette user in the company he works for, and only one of a few Filipinos who are trying out the product. He has been smoking an average of 15 sticks a day for 10 years now and has been trying to quit the habit.

The e-cigarette, he said, has eased off the amount of nicotine and tar levels he used to get from real cigarettes while at the same time satisfying his cigarette cravings.

"I want to quit, so lowering the nicotine levels is a good start. I've tried the nicotine patches, but it only addresses the physical [need for nicotine]. The e-cigarettes address the oral fixation, the act of smoking. So that's possibly a good combination," he said.

Tagged as "revolutionary" and "pioneering" products, these battery-operated plastic devices look like and are used like real cigarettes, except that they give off an odorless mist.

As such, they can be used in airports, workplaces, or restaurants - a definite plus for Morga, who can puff on an e-cigarette at his desk when he feels the need to.

E-cigarettes are charged using a special unit, and are fitted with replaceable cartridges that contain nicotine (but some come without it), flavorings, and propylene glycol which produces the smoke-like vapor.

The products were invented in 2004 by a Hong Kong-based firm.

Not too many places to buy

Since they are not yet available in commercial establishments, these products are usually purchased online or in select stores like Cash & Carry. 

"The issue with it is it's not distributed properly. It's not advertised, and not a lot of people know about it. There's a problem of accessibility," Morga said.

Morga bought his first e-cigarette pack at a franchise show about a month ago. For around P900, he got a battery-charging pack, the e-cigarette device, and 6 vanilla-flavored cartridges. Refills reportedly cost around P300 for 6 cartridges, which, Morga said, can last you for about 15 to 18 days.

SkiNova company's website www.bestcigarette.com claims to be the best and cheapest online source of electronic cigarettes in the Philippines. 

It sells electronic cigarette starter kits for $39 or P1,800 (inclusive of a starter guide and a variety of chargers), electronic cigarette value packs for $64 or about P3,065 (with 50 extra nicotine cartridges), and 10-piece cigarette cartridge sets for $6 or about P290.

While it costs about double the daily amount you spend for regular cigarettes, Morga said the product never fails to draw interest.

"There are a lot of people who saw me smoking it [who] are really interested in buying one. But there's the issue of accessibility... But I think it's worth it if you look at it [in the] long-term because you reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke," he said. 

Health concerns

However, the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) recently raised concerns about the product, saying the electronic cigarette isn't as healthy or "cancer-free" as its retailers claim.

In a laboratory analysis of two e-cigarette samples, the FDA's Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis found "detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed." 

These include diethylene glycol (an antifreeze ingredient that is toxic to humans) and tobacco-specific chemicals that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing).

Lab tests also showed that there were nicotine traces in cartridges labeled as having little or no nicotine.

In a statement issued on its website, FDA representatives also noted that quality control measures in e-cigarette manufacturing are nonexistent, and there is no guarantee that the products are safe.

The e-cigarette products sold in the Philippines do not come with a warning label or a list of ingredients, and the Bureau of Food and Drugs has yet to issue an approval. 

E-cigarettes have been banned by Israel, Australia, Canada, and Mexico over safety issues, while the US has strictly monitored e-cigarette shipments at its borders.

Despite its potential risks and skepticism among health advocates, Morga said he will continue to use the product as long as he sees and feels the benefits.

"Of course, there are carcinogens and all, but then again, regular smoke has [too]. Walking along EDSA is dangerous to your health [too]. But if you want to quit, it's not a perfect route, but it's a possible route. I'm sure in the long run, [the hazards] will be a lot less than smoking real cigarettes," he said. Report and photos by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.