Background

The earliest electronic cigarette can be traced to Herbert A. Gilbert, who in 1963 patented a device described as a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette that involved replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist flavored air.

The device heated the nicotine solution and produced steam. In 1967, Gilbert was approached by several companies interested in manufacturing it, but it was never commercialized and disappeared.

Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik is credited with the invention of the first-generation e-cigarette in 2000. It produced a smoke-like vapor that could be inhaled to deliver nicotine directly into the bloodstream via the lungs. The nicotine was diluted in a propylene glycol solution and he proposed placing it in a disposable cartridge that serves as the reservoir and mouthpiece. His inventions form the basis of the present-day e-cigarettes.

His device was first introduced to the Chinese market in 2004 as an aid for smoking cessation or replacement. It received its first international patent in 2007.

Online reports

Charlie Howle smoked cigarettes for 15 years. In 2012, he quit and tried a new smokeless tobacco device.

It didn’t provide the hit the Charleston man craved, and he wound up trying to puff on it longer to no avail, since the battery would shut off after a couple of seconds to keep itself from burning out.

“I was often not satisfied even with these ‘max’ hits,” Howle said. “After accidentally washing (it) in the washing machine, I decided it was not even helping me enough to be worth replacing.”

He then came across a new type of electronic cigarette while visiting Wilmington, N.C. It provided the nicotine fix he yearned for. Howle took to it.

After checking into the industry with his father and uncle, Howle now manages their shop, Charleston Electronic Cigarettes, which opened this month in West Ashley. Like others popping up across the Lowcountry, the Savannah Highway store carries assorted battery-operated smoking devices and related products.

Electronic cigarettes, developed in 2000 by a Chinese pharmacist, were slow to catch on at first and still represent a small fraction of the $80 billion-a-year market for smoking products in the U.S., according to the latest estimates. But the practice of “vaping,” as it’s called — users inhale a vapor rather than smoke — is expected to grow.

Global sales jumped 30 percent in each of the previous three years to around $2 billion in 2011, says an analysis by Euromonitor International cited in a recent New York Times report. In the U.S., retail sales of e-cigs climbed to $500 million last year.

About 10 percent of the 35 million users of conventional tobacco products are believed already to be in the electronic cigarette market, said Ray Story, founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association near Atlanta. He projects the conventional tobacco market will lose 2 percent to 6 percent of its market-share a year over the next 10 years to e-cigs.

“Over the next decade, the industry feels that the e-cigarette market will surpass conventional tobacco cigarettes in the U.S.,” Story said.

Smokeless scrutiny

Such projections have big tobacco companies taking notice.

Last year, Lollilard, maker of Newport, Kent and Old Gold conventional cigarettes, was the first of the old guard to expand into the electronic realm when it bought Blu for $135 million in cash. The highly promoted name brand had about $30 million in revenue in 2010.

More recently, tobacco powerhouse R.J. Reynolds, maker of Winston, Salem, Camel and numerous others, rolled out its own line of e-cigarettes called Vuse. They’re available only in Colorado for now, but the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company expects to go nationwide.

Electronic cigarettes are comprised of three main parts. A plastic cartridge serves as the mouthpiece and reservoir for a liquid solution, an atomizer va- porizes the liquid and a battery energizes the heating element.

They’re designed to allow the user to inhale varying levels of nicotine without the tar and other harmful byproducts of regular cigarettes.

The technology turns nicotine-laced propylene glycol into an inhalable vapor. It’s much like the real thing, without the ashy odor.

E-cigarettes also have attracted regulatory scrutiny.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried four years ago to block their sale, saying they were unapproven “drug/device combinations.”

In 2009, Story’s group sued, successfully challenging the FDA’s position, but in 2010 a federal appeals court held that e-cigarettes could be reg- ulated by the agency as tobacco products. Currently, the FDA’s regulations apply to cigarettes, tobacco and smokeless tobacco. The agency intends to issue a proposed rule that would extend its authority over other products that meet the legal definition of a “tobacco product,” according to its website.

“As the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes has not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use or if there are any benefits associated with using these products,” the FDA says.

“Additionally, it is not known if e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death,” according to the FDA.

Local lineup

There are at least four e-cig arette stores in the Charleston area: Ecigs Charleston, with two locations, Pleasant Ecigs and Charleston Electronic Cigarettes. The latter two opened in the past month in Mount Pleasant and West Ashley, respectively. Two stores are on the way. Pleasant Ecigs plans to open a second store in North Charleston in August. Ecigs Charleston operates stores in West Ashley and Summerville, with plans to open a third in Mount Pleasant in July.

“We have our own lab here where we can change the milligrams of nicotine,” said Rick Kosinski, who co-owns the new Pleasant Ecigs store.

The nicotine can be infused into flavored liquids from 0-36 milligrams at Kosinski’s shop, but he says he won’t make it over 24mg. The level of 18mg. is about the same as an average cigarette. For those trying to quit, the amount can be tapered down.

“Some people who want to get away from smoking like the fruity flavors,” said Howle.

At Howle’s shop, prices range from a few dollars up to nearly $70 for a top model e-lectronic cigarette. After paying for the device, smokers can buy liquid refills.

But just because e-cigarettes are smokeless, it’s not OK to light them up everywhere.

“We do not allow the use of electronic cigarettes on campus, anywhere, at anytime,” said Heather Woolwine, spokeswoman for MUSC, which has been cracking down on tobacco use around its buildings. She said the FDA believes them to be a tobacco product, not a product to help quit smoking, and allowing them on campus would defeat the goal of stamping out the habit.

As for the city of Charleston’s smoking policy, spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn said the ordinance “only applies to tobacco products.” It defines smoking materials as “cigars, cigarettes and all ... smoking devices ... for the purposes of inhaling and exhaling smoke.” That doesn’t apply to e-cigarettes, which are smokeless. “I guess we are going to have to write a new ordinance,” she said.