By Darren Thornberry,Longmont Magazine

If you don’t know the difference between an “e-cig” and a vaporizer, don’t worry. Both technologies have advanced so fast over the past few years that the average smoker transitioning away from traditional cigarettes is left dizzy by the choices.

The e-cigarette was brought to market in 2003 and quickly ushered in the era of smokeless nicotine delivery devices. It looks like a cigarette, feels like one, too, and even has a tip that glows red when the user inhales. Suddenly, a smoker can inhale a flavored vapor and get the nicotine fix while not smelling like an ashtray or inadvertently blowing foul smoke in anyone’s face.

A vaporizer is bulkier than an e-cig and costs more to get started with, but it is said to offer tastier vapor in a simpler form. This article will not get into the specifics of how each smoking device works, but the information is readily available. Even the lingo needs some getting used to. For the best selection of e-juice, batteries, cartridges, flavors, makes and models, the “vaper” is likely to visit a “vape shop.”

These are heady days for vape shops, to be sure, as the market for all things e-smoke blows right through the roof. E-cigarettes are a billion-dollar industry. They can be made to resemble pens and memory sticks, pipes or cigars. Cartridge flavors range from mint to bubble gum.

If you don’t think they’re being marketed to kids, think again. A recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that e-cigarette use among middle school and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014. Parents reading this likely have seen the warnings provided by their kids’ schools to be alert for e-cigs that look like something else.

shutterstock_166848629Repackaging nicotine in this manner, as many companies have done, does not mean less nicotine, less harmful nicotine, or less danger of becoming addicted. Still, profits skyrocket, municipalities struggle with knowing how this technology fits into current smoking laws, and the truth about smoking gets blurred in the vapor trail.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) says that although e-cigs do not produce tobacco smoke, they still contain nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals. We all know by now that nicotine is a highly addictive drug. The NIH also cites testing of some e-cigarette products, which found the vapor to contain known carcinogens and toxic chemicals (such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde), as well as potentially toxic metal nanoparticles from the vaporizing mechanism.

With that in mind, surely the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is regulating this stuff, right?

Wrong. The FDA has not evaluated any e-cigarettes for their safety or effectiveness. However, the department did conduct limited laboratory studies of certain samples and found “significant quality issues that indicate that quality control processes used to manufacture these products are substandard or non-existent.” The FDA states on its website that it found that cartridges labeled as containing no nicotine contained nicotine and that three different electronic cigarette cartridges with the same label emitted a markedly different amount of nicotine with each puff. Since the FDA hasn’t fully studied e-cigs, consumers don’t know the potential risks of e-cigs when they’re used as intended, exactly how much nicotine or god-knows-what-else they are sucking down, or whether e-cigs open the doors to traditional cigarettes. It’s a grey area.

Breakin’ the Law?

Cities in Colorado have not uniformly addressed e-cigs and vaporizers. Boulder has banned their public use in much of the city, and Ft. Collins recently included e-cigs in its smoking ordinance. In both instances, retailers and consumers alike have raised a huge stink. In Longmont, the local municipal code does not address e-cigs. “Only the state law does [address it] and local code enforcement is not empowered to enforce state law,” says Rigo Leal, assistant to the city manager.

Manager Courtney (last name withheld) at The Little Dog Pipe and Tobacco in Longmont says business is booming, due in part to the rapidly changing e-cig technology. “When a new tank is released, for example, it might require a different kind of battery than what the user had before,” she says. “The user has to adapt to keep up.”

As for the lack of regulation in the city’s ordinances, Courtney points out that it’s up to a given vendor to decide what works for them. “It’s really up to the discretion of the business. A bar might decide it’s worth it to allow their customers to vape.”

While vaping does eliminate secondhand smoke, the user should not kid themselves about the harmful effects of nicotine and tobacco. “Smoking hurts the heart over the long term by increasing hardening of the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack, where some of the heart tissue dies from lack of sufficient circulation,” says Dr. Richard Jacobi, a board certified family physician at UCHealth Longmont Clinic. “Over the short term, it increases the work a heart does (increases the heart rate) while simultaneously increasing the carbon monoxide levels in our blood, starving the blood and tissues of necessary oxygen.”

UCHealth.org goes on to explain that tobacco use and exposure may cause an acceleration of coronary artery disease and peptic ulcer disease. It is also linked to reproductive disturbances, esophageal reflux, hypertension, fetal illness and death, and delayed wound healing.

When it comes to a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the pros and cons of e-cigs, some would say the jury is out. In the meantime, a vaper can discreetly get nicotine that tastes like watermelon or chocolate from what looks like a ball-point pen. Times have changed.