5 Things You Need to Know About E-Cigarettes

VIDEO: Government Crackdown on Electronic Cigarettes
ABCNews.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this morning plans to regulate electronic cigarettes, requiring manufacturers to disclose product ingredients to the administration and put warning labels on the devices. However, there’s probably a lot you didn’t know about the controversial e-cigarette.

VIDEO: FDA Wants Warning Label on E-Cigarettes, Ban on Sales to Minors

For instance, e-cigarettes –- which now come in more colors than the iPhone 5C -– have been around since the 1960s. They’ve only started to take off in the last decade with more than 250 brands and flavors like watermelon, pink bubble gum and Java. An estimated 4 million Americans use them, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.

Click through for answers to more of your burning questions.

E-Cigarettes Explained

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are battery operated nicotine inhalers that consist of a rechargeable lithium battery, a cartridge called a cartomizer and an LED that lights up at the end when you puff on the e-cigarette to simulate the burn of a tobacco cigarette. The cartomizer is filled with an e-liquid that typically contains the chemical propylene glycol along with nicotine, flavoring and other additives.

The device works much like a miniature version of the smoke machines that operate behind rock bands. When you "vape" -- that's the term for puffing on an e-cig -- a heating element boils the e-liquid until it produces a vapor. A device creates the same amount of vapor no matter how hard you puff until the battery or e-liquid runs down.

E-Cigarettes Explained

How much do they cost?

Starter kits usually run between $30 and $100. The estimated cost of replacement cartridges is about $600, compared with the more than $1,000 a year it costs to feed a pack-a-day tobacco cigarette habit, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association. Discount coupons and promotional codes are available online.

Read more: E-Cigarette Sales to Hit $1 Billion

E-Cigarettes Explained

Are e-cigarettes regulated?

Until today, e-cigarettes were uncontrolled by the government despite a 2011 federal court case that gave the FDA the authority to regulate e-smokes under existing tobacco laws rather than as a medication or medical device, presumably because they deliver nicotine, which is derived from tobacco.

The agency had hinted it would begin regulating them this year, but its only action against the devices to date was a letter issued in 2010 to electronic cigarette distributors warning them to cease making various unsubstantiated marketing claims.

This has especially worried experts like Erika Seward, the assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association.

"With e-cigarettes, we see a new product within the same industry -- tobacco -- using the same old tactics to glamorize their products," she said. "They use candy and fruit flavors to hook kids, they make implied health claims to encourage smokers to switch to their product instead of quitting all together, and they sponsor research to use that as a front for their claims."

Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News's chief health and medical editor, said public health officials have been concerned that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to further tobacco use.

"Data show use of e-cigarettes by high school and junior high school students is on the rise," Besser said. "Once addicted to nicotine, will users move on to using tobacco with all the inherent health risks?”

"Countering the view are those who view e-cigarettes as an important step towards risk reduction for current cigarette smokers," he added. "They do not deliver the carcinogens that are the cause of so many health problems."

Read More: E-Cigarette Explodes In Man's Mouth

E-Cigarettes Explained

What are the health risks of vaping?

The jury is out. The phenomenon of vaping is so new that science has barely had a chance to catch up on questions of safety, but some initial small studies have begun to highlight the pros and cons.

The most widely publicized study into the safety of e-cigarettes was done when researchers analyzed two leading brands and concluded the devices did contain trace elements of hazardous compounds, including a chemical which is the main ingredient found in antifreeze. But Kiklas, whose brand of e-cigarettes were not included in the study, pointed out that the FDA report found nine contaminates versus the 11,000 contained in a tobacco cigarette and noted that the level of toxicity was shown to be far lower than those of tobacco cigarettes.

However, Seward said because e-cigarettes remain unregulated, it's impossible to draw conclusions about all the brands based on an analysis of two.

"To say they are all safe because a few have been shown to contain fewer toxins is troubling," she said. "We also don't know how harmful trace levels can be."

Thomas Glynn, the director of science and trends at the American Cancer Society, said there were always risks when one inhaled anything other than fresh, clean air, but he said there was a great likelihood that e-cigarettes would prove considerably less harmful than traditional smokes, at least in the short term.

"As for long-term effects, we don't know what happens when you breathe the vapor into the lungs regularly," Glynn said. "No one knows the answer to that."

E-Cigarettes Explained

Do e-cigarettes help tobacco smokers quit?

Because they preserve the hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking, Kiklas said e-cigarettes might help transform a smoker's harmful tobacco habits to a potentially less harmful e-smoking habit. As of yet, though, little evidence exists to support this theory.

In a first of its kind study published last fall in the medical journal Lancet, researchers compared e-cigarettes to nicotine patches and other smoking cessation methods and found them statistically comparable in helping smokers quit over a six-month period. For this reason, Glynn said he viewed the devices as promising though probably no magic bullet. For now, e-cigarette marketers can't tout their devices as a way to kick the habit without first submitting their products to the FDA as medical devices and proving that they work to help users quit. No company has done this.

Read More: Teen Use of E-Cigarettes On The Rise

Seward said many of her worries center on e-cigarettes being a gateway to smoking, given that many popular brands come in flavors and colors that seem designed to appeal to a younger generation of smokers.

"We're concerned about the potential for kids to start a lifetime of nicotine use by starting with e-cigarettes," she said.

Though the National Association of Attorneys General today called on the FDA to immediately regulate the sale and advertising of electronic cigarettes, there were no federal age restrictions to prevent kids from obtaining e-cigarettes. Most e-cigarette companies voluntarily do not sell to minors yet vaping among young people is on the rise.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found nearly 1.8 million young people had tried e-cigarettes and the number of U.S. middle and high school students e-smokers doubled between 2011 and 2012.

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