June 12, 2009 -- It may look like the common cigarette, but the electronic cigarette costs much more and emits an odorless water vapor substitute instead of smoke, which has made them popular with smokers like Sonja Finkes despite its $50 to $150 price tag.
Finkes, who has been a smoker for 40 years, now can get her nicotine at her desk for the first time. Her non-smoking campus allows the use of electronic cigarettes because they don't smell or cause second-hand smoke.
"It's not as offensive product as a combustible cigarette and there are a lot of people looking for those kinds of alternatives," said Matt Salmon, president of the Electronic Cigarette Association.
But health advocates contend the electronic cigarettes have never been tested for safety.
"We just don't know the answer to the question to whether or not it's safe," said Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center Director Dr. Richard Hunt. "What we know about smoke-free work places is that it helps people to stop smoking this will actually help people to continue to smoke cigarettes, conventional cigarettes as well as this product."
And now the Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on electronic cigarettes, partly out of concern kids may be attracted to electronic cigarettes because some are fruit or chocolate flavored. Even though they don't contain carcinogens like tobacco and tar, they do contain nicotine, which is one of the most addictive chemicals known to man.
Since March, the FDA has seized multiple shipments at domestic ports and told "GMA" they are "drug/medical device combination products … that would require FDA approval … before being legally marketed in the United States."
"The FDA is extremely busy with a lot of very, very important things to come and focus on something like this with such venom to me actually is quite surprising," Salmon said.
The Electronic Cigarette Association said the FDA doesn't have the authority to regulate electronic cigarettes because its members don't market them as smoking cessation devices, though some rogue sellers do. Rather, the association said e-cigarettes were invented to help existing smokers get around public smoking bans.
But the so-called e-cigarettes are being marketed openly at mall kiosks and the Internet.
This week the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would give the FDA the same power over cigarettes that it has over foods and medicines. The bill would allow the FDA to regulate how much nicotine is in cigarettes. It would also ban flavored cigarettes and force manufacturers to put much larger warnings on every pack. President Obama is expected to sign the bill in a few weeks.