Debating benefits of e-cigarettes

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Smoke shop talk: Dhiren Shah (left) demonstrates how the Double Diamond e-cigarette works to customer Jerry Stuffle, of Crown Point, who came in to Karma Tobacco & Cigar Lounge in Merrillville to smoke a cigar. The business has seen an increase in popularity of e-cigarettes. | Staff photo

Before Richard Bell switched from smoking normal cigarettes to electronic cigarettes, he was unsure about how easy it would be to make the switch.

“I was a complete skeptic,” said Bell, who manages Mr. Smoke Chicago, a smoke shop in Lincoln Park.

Bell, who started smoking in his hometown of Homewood when he was about 17, said he smoked for about 10 years before making the switch to electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes) about a year and a half ago. But these days, he said, he smokes them to demonstrate them to customers who come into his shop and even then, he said, he does not put any nicotine inside them.

“I’m completely weaned off the nicotine, as well,” he said. “There’s just flavor inside of them.”

Though Bell is an e-cigarette evangelist who is quick to tout them as a way to stop smoking normal cigarettes, the actual benefit of e-cigarettes is still up for debate. An NBC News article from last month said that 21 percent of U.S. adults have tried e-cigarettes, but the Centers For Disease Control said they may be addictive and dangerous.

E-cigarettes are battery powered devices that work by converting liquid nicotine into vapor that the user inhales, according to Howstuffworks.com. The website said they were invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, who patented them in 2003.

The main difference, according to the website, is that e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco. Manufacturers and satisfied customers say that the nicotine vapor offers advantages over traditional cigarette smoke, but regulatory agencies and some health experts aren’t sure. They’re asking questions about the possible side effects of inhaling nicotine vapor, as well as other health risks e-cigarettes may pose — both to users and to the public.

What’s difficult to debate, however, is the popularity of e-cigarettes in the greater Chicagoland area.

Dhiren Shah, owner of Karma Tobacco & Cigar Lounge in Merrillville, Ind., said his shop has only been selling e-cigarettes for about a year and a half, but said that despite a slow start, e-cigarettes now account for between 5 and 7 percent of his store’s sales.

“We really didn’t want to get into this thing until they really became popular,” Shah said.

While e-cigarettes get more popular, Shah said regular cigarettes are decreasing in popularity. Shah said sales of regular cigarettes at his store have decreased between 7 and 10 percent per year each of the last two years.

Bell said e-cigarettes, however, are rapidly becoming popular at his store.

“We’re predominantly a glass shop,” he said. “But electronic cigarettes have easily become our main focus.”

Prices for e-cigarettes start at $8.99 for a disposable device, Shah said. A high end e-cigarette “starter kit” – which includes two liquid nicotine cartridges (each of which can provide a user with as much nicotine as a carton of cigarettes), a USB charger and a battery – can cost up to $34.99, Shah said.

But even at the high end, Shah said, a starter kit costs less than the cheapest carton of cigarettes in his store, which goes for $37.99.

Bell and Shah both said people of all ages and of both genders buy e-cigarettes equally. Bell said that he’s even seen longtime-smokers use e-cigarettes to completely quit regular cigarettes in a matter of weeks.

While the jury may still be out on the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes, Bell remains a big fan.

“There’s no secondhand smoke from it,” he said. “It’s good for everybody.”