A variety of e-cigarettes on display at a Manchester convenience store. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
New Hampshire was one of the first states to restrict sales of electronic cigarettes, prohibiting minors from purchasing the devices in 2010.
No longer just a niche market, the sale of e-cigarettes is a booming business that has eluded much further regulation because health experts are still studying the potential risks and possible merits.
“We don’t have enough data. There just hasn’t been enough studies done to say,” said Dr. Albee Budnitz, chairman of Tobacco Free New Hampshire and a member of the board of directors for Breathe New Hampshire.
Advocates call Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, or ENDS, a viable method to quit smoking. Opponents note nicotine is addictive whether it is inhaled through smoke or comes in a battery-powered blast of vapor at the push of a button.
And many are concerned about rapid growth of the industry and availability of the products, now a common sight in convenience stores.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed in April to define e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, allowing the FDA to regulate it like cigarettes (the old-fashioned kind that don’t run on batteries) and smokeless tobacco.
The proposal is currently in a public comment phase that runs through Aug. 8.
The liquid nicotine comes in a wide range of flavors such as bubble gum and chocolate, which opponents say is a clear attempt to attract minors.
“It’s here and it’s another fight we have,” Budnitz said. “I don’t like to do fights without data and we just don’t have enough ... it’s one of those double-edged swords. It might be helpful for some but might be hurtful to others.”
Budnitz expects the debate and regulatory process to go much like the battle against cigarette smoking, once socially acceptable in public. Television advertising for traditional cigarettes was banned decades ago. But e-cigarettes don’t fall under the same regulations; ads with popular actors market the alternative ENDS.
This is a concern to state Sen. Peggy Gilmour, D-Hollis, a sponsor of the 2010 bill that became a state law prohibiting the sales of e-cigarettes and liquid tobacco to minors.
“The marketing effort is often to young people,” Gilmour said Sunday.
Gilmour, a nurse, said she was disturbed to see an e-cigarette kiosk in the middle of a mall, where teens strolled by routinely hearing a message of an alternative to tobacco.
Gilmour knows that teens who want to smoke will find a way, but reducing access is at least a deterrent, she said.
“We’re naive if we think it’s going to stop it altogether, but I do think it makes it more difficult and it sends a message,” Gilmour said.
Mike Johnson, who has run Holy Smokes cigar shop on South Willow Street in Manchester for 10 years, said he has no doubt regulation is coming once the government catches up to a product that’s been on the market for years; he started selling electronic cigarettes last fall.
“We kind of timed it right. Technology changes with this every three weeks,” Johnson said.
“I understand why they want to regulate it, but at the same time I know what the government is going to do — they’re going to step in and do what they always do and (mess) things up,” he said.
Holy Smokes started selling e-cigarettes and “juice” last September. Johnson said he started with a handful of flavors and now has about 90.
Johnson said he doesn’t market to minors and they know better than to try and purchase anything at his shop. He said his customer base ranges from people in their 30s to 80s, many looking for a way to kick their smoking habit.