Clearing the air about e-cigarettes: Just how safe are they?

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - Electronic cigarettes, battery powered devices that deliver nicotine and other chemicals as an alternative to tobacco smoking, are capturing the nation's attention.

The vaping devices are exploding in popularity, and many tobacco smokers swear e-cigarettes have helped them quit smoking. However, the health effects of e-cigarettes have the medical community at a crossroads, because there is still a lot of gray area surrounding potential long term health effects.

Vaping has become routine for Michelle Keeffer.

"I vape a lot," Keeffer said.

She has for the last year and a half anyway. Before that, Keeffer smoked tobacco cigarettes for nearly 30 years. She developed severe asthma from the smoke, and so did her oldest son. When she smoked in the house, her son would often develop respiratory infections, and the family would have to rush him to the emergency room.

Keeffer had smoked since she was 14 years old. She has been trying to quit for almost 10 years, but says no matter how many times she tried, nothing worked.

"It was a nightmare," Keeffer said. "To be honest, I pretty much gave up on quitting. I didn't think I was going to quit."

Then she found vaping.

"Psychologically, I didn't think it was going to work because nothing else had worked in the past," Keeffer said. "But I was surprised it actually worked within a week."

Keeffer found that the nicotine found in many e-cigarettes and vaping liquids satisfied her cravings. Now, a year and a half later, she's breathing better and feeling healthier. She says her doctors applauded the change.

"They're excited actually that I'm not smoking to be honest, and that my breathing is better," Keeffer said.

The vaping business hit a milestone at the end of August, with sales reaching $1 billion. Analysts expect it will reach $1.7 billion before the end of 2013. That would be a 70 percent jump in just four months.

Locally, the trend is catching on. More and more vapor and e-cigarette stores are popping up around the Treasure Valley.

"It's proven over time it's not going away," said Jim Longden, owner of Vapoligy, a local vaping shop. "It's just going to get bigger because people are seeing the benefits, they're feeling it."

National e-cigarette suppliers such as Vapor Corp. say their products are a new, safer alternative to smoking that allow you to smoke virtually anywhere. The company says its products are only filled with a vapor and contain "no smoke, no tar, and no carcinogens."

Some doctors will even acknowledge that vaping can help people quit smoking, and say that between the two, electronic cigarettes are the lesser of two evils.

"Comparing the toxicity of the two, most in the health care field feel that when compared with tobacco, e-cigarettes aren't as toxic, but they can be just as addictive," Dr. Jim Souza, a pulmonologist at St. Lukes said.

Souza says most e-cigarettes and vaping liquids contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance that can affect the cardiovascular system. Those labeled as containing no nicotine, Souza says often have traces of it anyway.

But because these devices aren't regulated by the FDA, e-cigarettes and vaping devices have presented the medical community with an interesting challenge in determining the possible long term health effects.

"I do think the final answer is that it's too soon to tell completely," Souza said. "That's one of the concerns right? We might be playing with fire."

From the secondhand effects to potential long term health concerns, Souza says there is a lot of gray area.

"We're doing the best with what we know right now," he said.

But for him, he says that's not enough.

"I have not been recommending e-cigarettes because I'm not sure what's in them," he said.

For Keeffer, the uncertainty is worth the risk. Right now, her family is happier and so is she.

"It's something I strongly believe in," Keeffer said. "It has worked for me."

She says vaping will help her vision to quit nicotine completely, and vows never to go back to her old ways.

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