PROVIDENCE — The last time Frank Meglio smoked a cigarette he had to plug it in and charge it. Then the 38-year-old Providence man inhaled through the white plastic cigarette-like tube, which activated a little lithium battery inside that produced a flame-like light, a smoke-like vapor and a nicotine hit.
Smoking’s gone high-tech.
Electronic cigarettes, or “e cigs,” have been in existence about a decade. But only recently, as real cigarette prices soar, have they gained popularity, and controversy.
These products are being promoted as offering smokers the nicotine they want without the cancer-causing chemicals they don’t want. Since there’s no odor and no real smoke (just propylene glycol used in theatrical fog) or flame (just a tiny light at the tip for effect), they can be used indoors. They come in different flavors and four levels of nicotine dosages.
“Most people use it as a healthier way to smoke,” said Edwin Schwab, who works for Smoking Everywhere, a U.S. distributor of e cigs. “It sounds absurd but it’s really true.”
What may make e cigs more appealing now than before is the recent rise in the price of cigarettes. Last week, Rhode Island raised its excise tax on cigarettes to $3.46 per pack, the highest in the country.
And the federal excise tax rose from 39 cents per pack to $1.01. So a typical pack of smokes in the state now costs $8.35. In New York, it’s even higher.
Compare that with a pack of e cigs: $2. Since they’re not cigarettes, they’re not taxed as cigarettes. They contain the drug nicotine, but aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration — at least not yet.
The FDA reports that it is “looking into this.” And it is getting encouragement to look thoroughly and decisively. Two months ago David Gifford, the state’s health director, wrote the FDA asking it to regulate e cigs because of their nicotine content.
“We don’t support e cigarettes,” said Annemarie Beardsworth, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Health. “Nicotine is an addictive substance.”
Any product promoting withdrawal from nicotine, she maintained, should be FDA-approved. “E cigarettes are not a regulated product. There is no identification required to purchase them. With tobacco you need to be 18.”
E cigarettes sold by Smoking Everywhere, a Florida-based company, come in various flavors: apple, cherry, strawberry and chocolate, among others.
A Smoking Everywhere starter kit, which comes with a charger and five tips, with each tip the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, costs $130. Replacement packs of five tips cost $10.
Meglio used to smoke tobacco cigarettes, a pack a day, until New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2 he bought a Smoking Everywhere starter kit. He hasn’t smoked a real cigarette since. And previously he had tried other products to try to stop smoking. But nothing worked for long.
“I tried the gum and ended up with hiccups and it tastes really gross. With the patch, you’re getting nicotine all day. With this, I get what I need when I want it … If I don’t quit, I’m still better off than smoking.”
Schwab, 28, who smoked for roughly a decade, stopped when he began using e cigarettes, which he now sells.
“I believed in the product so much that I wanted to work for the company,” Schwab said.
It has been four months since Schwab smoked a tobacco cigarette. A friend had given him an e cig starter kit, which he ignored for a month, until one cold and snowy night he was going out with friends and didn’t feel like smoking outside. So he gave e cigs a try.
“It seemed bizarre and gimmicky. I just thought it wouldn’t work.”
Now it’s been a month since Schwab has had an e cig, which he attributes to changing his life.
“I realized smoking was slowly taking over my life. I was up to two packs a day. I was always in my basement or outside smoking. My car stunk. My clothes stunk. I couldn’t believe I was spending all this money to make my things stink.”
The Smoking Everywhere e cigarettes are sold at mall kiosks around the country. Steve Bayonne owns the one in Providence, which has been in operation for a few months.
“Once every 10 years there is a really good product that hits the market,” Bayonne said.
“I heard about this last year and decided to move forward.”