Electronic cigarettes, or e cigarettes battery operated nicotine delivery devices that mimic the look and feel of smoking by vaporizing a liquid solution such as propylene glycol appeared in European and American markets less than a decade ago. Sales have reached $650 million a year in Europe and are projected to reach $1.7 billion in the United States in 2013. Though these figures are a small fraction of sales figures for traditional cigarettes, e cigarettes represent a substantial market achievement indeed, some people predict that they may eventually eclipse tobacco cigarettes.

But e cigarettes are the subject of a public health dispute that has become more furious as their popularity has increased. Whereas some experts welcome the e cigarette as a pathway to the reduction or cessation of tobacco use, opponents characterize it as a dangerous product that could undermine efforts to denormalize smoking. Already, Boston has applied workplace smoking bans to e cigarettes. New York City and Los Angeles are poised to go a step further, prohibiting their use in public (including in parks and on beaches), though a similar proposal recently stalled in Chicago. This debate occurs as tobacco control advocates have begun examining policy options for a tobacco endgame the implementation of radical strategies for eliminating tobacco use globally.

Marketing campaigns for e cigarettes threaten to reverse the successful, decades long public health campaign to denormalize smoking. The chief advertising officer of one e cigarette company has spoken explicitly about the renormalization of smoking in the form of vaping the popular name for e cigarette use. Even Big Tobacco dared not utter such words as the image of smoking was transformed over the decades. As information about the hazards of sidestream smoke was publicized in the 1980s and 1990s, the imperative to protect innocent bystanders moved to the center of tobacco control efforts, and public smoking bans pushed smokers into the shadows. The once widespread habit didn’t simply become denormalized or marginalized it became highly stigmatized. The pervasive became perverse.

E cigarette advertisements, even as they denigrate traditional tobacco cigarettes, are challenging a barrier to television promotion erected more than 40 years ago. Smelling like an ashtray is not the ideal aphrodisiac, scolds talk show host Jenny McCarthy, as she enjoys her Blu eCig. Actor Stephen Dorff, another Blu spokesperson and former smoker, similarly acknowledges that smoking is seen as dirty but adds, I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I want to light up. He implies that public health messages are paternalistic We’re all adults here. It’s time to take our freedom back. Come on guys, rise from the ashes. On Super Bowl Sunday 2013, an NJOY e cigarette ad seen by 10 million viewers declared, Finally, smokers have a real alternative. Cigarettes, you’ve met your match.

The tobacco control community has responded to these messages with alarm. In 2009, the World Health Organization warned that e cigarettes threatened bans on public smoking, which have been key to tobacco control. Similar concerns were raised by anti tobacco activist Stanton Glantz and his colleagues Given the substantial research demonstrating the effect of viewing smoking in the movies on adolescent smoking initiation, the addictive nature of nicotine and the lack of regulatory assurance of their quality or safety, it is important to keep ENDS electronic nicotine delivery systems , and other similar products, from being sensationalized through the use of celebrity promotion or product placement in movies or other entertainment media. 1

These fears are compounded by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that twice as many young people experimented with e cigarettes in 2012 as in 2011, although use of tobacco cigarettes declined in the same period (see graphUse of Cigarettes and Electronic Cigarettes by U.S. Students in 2011 and 2012.). If e cigarettes prove to be a gateway or bridge product, leading to an increase in underage smoking, that would represent a serious setback in the fight against tobacco related illness. Invoking images of terrorism, two tobacco control advocates claim that smoking bans and clean air advocacy are being hijacked. 2 Australian tobacco control advocates Simon Chapman and Melanie Wakefield warn that something sinister is at work. The goal of e cigarette makers is not cessation of tobacco use but dual use e cigarettes simply capitalize on harm reduction sentiment to sustain what has become a private habit by reopening public spaces. They argue, This could be a harm increasing outcome when assessed against the status quo of ever declining smoking prevalence. 3

In September 2013, 40 U.S. attorneys general called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to act swiftly to regulate e cigarettes as tobacco products. Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health, has urged leaders of U.S. schools of public health to join an effort to make U.S. colleges and universities smoke free, which would include banning e cigarettes.

The most vocal supporters of e cigarettes, other than those with commercial interests in them, have been public health professionals who’ve embraced the strategy of harm reduction an approach to risky behavior that prioritizes minimizing damage rather than eliminating the behavior. Harm reduction was the guiding principle behind needle exchange, the provision of sterile syringes to injection drug users to reduce bloodborne transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis, and other illnesses. Some harm reduction advocates frame an abstinence only stance as moralistic, arguing that it is nonsensical to dismiss an alternative by demanding absolute safety. Furthermore, some such advocates believe that not only e cigarettes but also smokeless tobacco products hold the potential to lead to one of the greatest public health breakthroughs in human history by fundamentally changing the forecast of a billion cigarette caused deaths this century. 4

Although the evidence is limited and contested, some studies suggest that the majority of e cigarette users treat them as cessation aides and report that they’ve been key to quitting smoking. For example, in one study, e cigarettes compare favorably to nicotine replacement therapies in terms of the likelihood of having returned to smoking 6 months after a cessation attempt.5

Given the near unanimity of the public health community in pressing for harm reduction for injection drug users in the face of relentless political opposition, some harm reduction advocates find it stunning that their allies in that struggle have embraced an abstinence only position on smoking. These advocates claim that a strategy of reducing, though not eliminating, risk is a moral imperative, given the certainty of harm associated with continued tobacco smoking.

The debate’s stakes are heightened by the current discussion of the tobacco endgame, which aims to eliminate smoking or reduce it to very low levels. Most endgame strategists have advanced prohibitionist policies, from complete bans on traditional cigarettes, to regulatory strategies that would reduce and eventually eliminate nicotine, to efforts to manipulate pH levels in tobacco to make inhaling unpleasant.

This debate compels us to address the fundamental issue posed by Kenneth Warner in a recent issue of Tobacco Control devoted to endgame strategies What would constitute a final victory in tobacco control? Warner’s question raises several others Must victory entail complete abstinence from e cigarettes as well as tobacco? To what levels must we reduce the prevalence of smoking? What lessons should be drawn from the histories of alcohol and narcotic drug prohibition?

From the glowing tip to the smokelike vapor, e cigarettes seek to mimic the personal experience and public performance of smoking. But ironically, the attraction of the device is predicated on the continued stigmatization of
tobacco cigarettes. Although abstinence only and strict denormalization strategies may be incompatible with e cigarette use, the goal of eliminating smoking related risks is not. We may not be able to rid the public sphere of vaping, but given the magnitude of tobacco related deaths some 6 million globally every year and 400,000 in the United States, disproportionately among people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum an unwillingness to consider e cigarette use until all risks or uncertainties are eliminated strays dangerously close to dogmatism. We believe that states should ban the sale of e cigarettes to minors and the FDA should move swiftly to regulate them so that their potential harms are better understood and so that they can contribute to the goal of harm reduction.

The e-cigarette industry, waiting to exhale – nytimes.com

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His was an electronic cigarette, a look alike that delivers nicotine without combusting tobacco and produces a vapor, not smoke. Mr. Vuleta, 51, who has a sardonic humor, clearly relished recounting this story. He is the chief marketing officer for NJOY, an electronic cigarette company based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it is his job to reframe how everyone, nonsmokers included, view the habit of inhaling from a thin stick and blowing out a visible cloud.

Mr. Vuleta, who told his tale in the office of Craig Weiss, the NJOY chief executive, calls this a process of renormalizing, so that smokers can come back in from the cold. He means that literally allowing people now exiled to the sidewalks back into buildings with e cigarettes. But he also means it metaphorically. Early in the last century, smoking was an accepted alternative for men to chewing tobacco for women, it was daring and transgressive. Then, in midcentury, it became the norm. As the dangers of tobacco and the scandalous behavior of tobacco companies in concealing those dangers became impossible to ignore, smoking took on a new identity societal evil.

Mr. Vuleta and Mr. Weiss want to make vaping, as e cigarette smoking is known in the industry, acceptable. Keith Richards might still be smoking tobacco, but in Mr. Vuleta s vision, that grizzled guitarist s gesture could inspire the audience, en masse, to pull out e cigarettes. The moment Keith Richards does it, he said, everyone else does, too.

Mr. Vuleta s words are more exuberant than the official company line, which is that NJOY doesn t want everyone to smoke e cigarettes but only to convert the 40 million Americans who now smoke tobacco. The customers NJOY attracts, and how it attracts them, are at the center of a new public health debate, not to mention a rush to control the e cigarette business.

At stake is a vaping market that has grown in a few short years to around $1.7 billion in sales in the United States. That is tiny when compared to the nation s $90 billion cigarette market. But one particularly bullish Wall Street analyst projects that consumption of e cigarettes will outstrip regular ones in the next decade.

NJOY was one of the first companies to sell e cigarettes now there are 200 in the United States, most of them small. Just last year, however, Big Tobacco got into the game when Lorillard acquired Blu, an e cigarette brand, and demonstrated its economic power. Within months, relying on Lorillard s decades old distribution channels, Blu displaced NJOY as the market leader.

Mr. Weiss still sees NJOY as having an advantage in building e cigarettes that look, feel and perform like the real thing. It s a different strategy than that of competing products that look like long silver tubes or sleek, blinking fountain pens.

We re trying to do something very challenging change a habit that is not only entrenched but one people are willing to take to their grave, said Mr. Weiss, who is not a smoker but has tried both regular and e cigarettes. To accomplish that, we have to narrow as much as possible the bridge to familiarity. We have to make it easy for smokers to cross it.

To some, though not all, in public health, that vision sounds ill conceived, if not threatening. Among their concerns is that making smoking like behavior O.K. again will undo decades of work demonizing smoking itself. Far from leading to more smoking cessation, they argue, e cigarettes will ultimately revive it, and abet new cases of emphysema, heart disease and lung cancer.

The very thing that could make them effective is also their greatest danger, said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To achieve his ends, Mr. Weiss is building a company of strange bedfellows. He has hired former top tobacco industry executives, but also attracted a former surgeon general, Dr. Richard H. Carmona, who has joined the board. NJOY recently hired away a prominent professor of chemistry and genomics from Princeton to be the company s chief scientist. The company has attracted investment from Sean Parker, the former Facebook president, and Peter Thiel, the PayPal co founder. There has also been a celebrity endorsement from the singer Bruno Mars.

Mr. Weiss sees his company as doing something epic. Not long after he was named its president in June 2010, he asked his psychologist if he might record his regular sessions. It was an unusual request, but he thinks that recording his thoughts might ultimately help him write a book or movie script about how he and the company made the cigarette obsolete.

We re at this incredible inflection point in history, he said, adding that the company has a chance to make the single most beneficial impact on society in this century.