There are roughly 44 million smokers in the U.S., and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 5 of them has tried electronic cigarettes. They appeal to anyone who wants the look and feel of smoking but wants to be able to do it indoors and when they go out with friends without the stigma, the smell and the yellow teeth. For pack-a-day smokers who switch entirely, the e-cigarette is cheaper. They hope it is healthier too.
Much of e-cigarettes' early success comes thanks to their near complete freedom from regulation, which has allowed dozens of small players to flourish. That is about to change. The tobacco giants Lorillard, Reynolds American, Altria and British American Tobacco have just entered the market. And the Food and Drug Administration says it intends to assert control over e-cigs in October.
The challenge for regulators is this: public-health experts have spent years stigmatizing smoking and making it as inconvenient as possible, scrubbing it from popular culture and public places. E‑cigarettes may well offer the first realistic chance of escape from the most exquisite and deadly delivery device for nicotine ever invented, the combustible cigarette. Yet with their sexy marketing and aura of safety, they might reglamorize smoking, discouraging smokers from quitting and, worse, enticing nonsmokers to start.