By Mike Garrity
KSDK -- They're called "electronic cigarettes" -- plastic cylinders that dispense nicotine. They are popping up for sale everywhere, from mall kiosks to gas stations and convenience stores. But some health organizations and anti-smoking advocates question their safety.
"It eliminates the chemicals, carcinogens and tar that will kill one in five people alive," says local electronic cigarette salesman Mike Pona, who calls them a tobacco alternative.
E-cigarettes, as many call them, look like traditional cigarettes, but they run on batteries and dispense a nicotine vapor rather than smoke.
"So this is a way for the smoker to go through the habit they're familiar with, give their brain what it needs, without hurting themselves or exposing anyone around them to second hand smoke," says Pona.
E-cigarettes are legal in Missouri and Illinois, but they are banned in some countries like Singapore and Brazil. And some, including the American Lung Association, feel they should be banned here. Recently, the Illinois State Senate passed legislation that would have prevented the sale of e-cigarettes.
But the effort died in the Illinois State House.
A sponsor of the bill says his concern is that the FDA found examples of carcinogens and other chemicals in electronic cigarette cartridges. So far, the government is not regulating e-cigarettes as issues surrounding their regulation have been tied up in court.
"You say this product is safer than a traditional cigarette? I'm not going to say anything of the sort, no," Pona says. "People can make up their own mind. Again, it contains no chemicals, no carcinogens, no tar."
Pona says money--not safety--is what's really behind the proposal.
"The pharmaceutical companies who make a lot of money prolonging diseases caused by tobacco - or providing alternatives such as the gum, or the patch or the pill," Pona says. "And not to mention the state of Illinois, who makes $3.30 cents per pack, tax money off every pack of cigarettes they sell."
Meanwhile, e-cigarettes do get some support from an unlikely expert: Dr. Walt Sumner of Washington University. He's spent his career fighting against smoking and traditional cigarettes.
"I'd say electronic cigarettes are the first step in the right direction. And they're not there yet," says Sumner.
Sumner is concerned about e-cigarettes on the market right now because he says they have not been properly studied and people can't be sure what is actually inside them.
"There's no quality control in electronic cigarettes. They're all made in--overwhelmingly made--in China," says Sumner. "The Chinese that brought us lead painted toys."
But overwhelmingly, Sumner says inhaling nicotine itself is a lot healthier than breathing in smoke.
"If they were subjecting themselves to reasonable review by the FDA or by some other health organization...it ought to be a very good product," says Sumner. "A very far safer product than tobacco cigarettes."
Besides the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, the Heart Association and a host of other organizations oppose the electronic cigarette.