Written by Jim Lewis
Brandan Hansberry, a 21-year-old warehouse worker, sits on a barstool at the Vapor Cafe in Ephrata, puffing an electronic cigarette in a haze of berry-flavored smoke, an act he insists is more pleasurable than the three-packs-a-week cigarette habit he quit.
He used to crave a menthol cigarette soon after awaking each day, but now he puts off smoking his e-cigarette, and its lower level of nicotine, for four to five hours after he gets out of bed, he said.
"With cigarettes, you get up in the morning and brush your teeth and it's, 'Oh, I have to have a cigarette,'" said Hansberry, occasionally drawing smoke from his device, a silver cellphone-shaped box with a metal stem. "With this, I can get up and get moving around and start my morning commute before I smoke. It's not really a crutch."
A new Penn State study agrees. E-cigarettes are less addictive than traditional cigarettes, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers.
Their finding is based on analysis of responses to a national survey of young and adult smokers by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
Ultimately, the goal is to determine whether e-cigarettes are gateways to traditional cigarette smoking among young people, according to Guodong Liu, the Penn State study's lead author and an assistant professor of public health sciences at the College of Medicine. Though some e-cigarette vapors are nicotine-free, many contain an amount of nicotine that is less than that found in traditional cigarettes, he said.
"E-cigarettes are a less addicting device, but you can start with the less addictive devices and become addicted," Liu said. "Addiction is a progression. Even a little bit of nicotine can start a progression."
Penn State's findings are based on data from a national survey called the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health, or PATH, study. More than 30,000 people have responded to the survey, but 3,500 said they exclusively used either e-cigarettes or traditional cigarettes, meeting Penn State's criteria regarding addiction.
Smokers who responded to the PATH survey will be surveyed on an ongoing basis, providing data that will allow researchers to examine the e-cigarette phenomenon longitudinally, Liu said.
That will help the federal government determine whether it should strengthen or loosen new regulations on the devices. The FDA ruled in 2016 that e-cigarettes could not be sold to minors under the age of 18.
E-cigarettes include a variety of battery-operated devices that heat flavored liquids and allow the smoker to inhale the aerosol that's produced. Though some liquids contain no nicotine, many contain an amount that ranges from 3 milligrams to 80 percent of the nicotine found in cigarettes, according to Liu.
The liquids, commonly called e-juice, typically contain four ingredients: Propylene Glycol, Vegetable Glycerin, flavoring and distilled water, with nicotine being optional but common.
E-cigarettes have been known to help cigarette smokers quit or reduce their habit, Liu said. Still, "We do not really claim this is a healthier alternative to cigarettes," he said. Researchers are studying the contents of the liquids used in e-cigarettes and their effect on the body when heated and inhaled.
But Liu's study shows that e-cigarette smokers wait longer to use their product after awaking in the morning than cigarette smokers, and are more likely to believe they're not addicted to their devices.
Hansberry is among the e-cigarette smokers who believe his device is a healthier choice than cigarettes. An asthma sufferer, he began smoking e-cigarettes, known as "vaping," at the urging of a friend, and eventually stopped smoking menthol cigarettes altogether.
"We believe that vaping is the healthier option," he said. "You have the freedom of choice. You can turn it into a hobby."
At Smooth Vape, a Sinking Spring shop that sells e-cigarettes, about 95 percent of the clientele are cigarette smokers interested in quitting, or cutting, their cigarette habit, said Matt McDermott, one of two owners of the business.
"That's why we opened the store, to help people quit smoking," said McDermott, a reformed cigarette smoker. "You don't want to smoke a cigarette when you vape, because it will taste disgusting. As long as people get the right device to start, they don't go back to cigarettes."
While e-cigarettes have become popular, growing to a $3.5 billion business in the U.S., according to the Surgeon General, the number of vape shops in Pennsylvania has declined by nearly 30 percent since the state imposed a 40-percent wholesale tax on vaping products. Ninety-three of the 311 shops that were open in Pennsylvania in 2016 have closed since the tax was imposed on Oct. 1, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg.
A bill to replace the tax with a lower 5-cents-a-milliliter tax was approved by the Senate Finance Committee in April, but has not been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate.
The only product in McDermott's shop that produces a profit is the flavored liquid he makes and sells, he said. A variety of flavors, from candy cane to "Grapealicious," fill bottles that line a wall behind the counter.
McDermott agrees with restricting sales of e-cigarettes to adults 18 or older, but he fears that federal and state governments are going to put the vaping industry out of business with stricter regulations and high taxes.
"They're going to shut the whole industry down, that's my prediction," he said.