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Sun, Mar 01, 2009 - Page 12 News List

Chinese electronic cigarettes gain ground amid safety concerns

The e-cigarettes vaporize a nicotine solution, rather than burn tobacco, using a battery in the shape of a cigarette with a red LED that lights up when inhaled

By Chi-chi Zhang, Vinnee Tong AND Carley Petesch  /  AP , BEIJING AND NEW YORK

With its slim white body and glowing amber tip, it can easily pass as a regular cigarette. It even emits what look like curlicues of white smoke.

The Ruyan V8, which produces a nicotine-infused mist absorbed directly into the lungs, is just one of a rapidly growing array of electronic cigarettes attracting attention in China, the US and elsewhere — and the scrutiny of world health officials.

Marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking and a potential way to kick the habit, the smokeless smokes have been distributed in swag bags at the British film awards and hawked at an international trade show.

Because no burning is involved, makers say there’s no hazardous cocktail of cancer-causing chemicals and gases like those produced by a regular cigarette.

There’s no secondhand smoke, so they can be used in places where cigarettes are banned, the makers said.

Health authorities are questioning those claims.

The WHO issued a statement in September warning there was no evidence to back up contentions that e-cigarettes were a safe substitute for smoking or a way to help smokers quit.

It also said companies should stop marketing them that way, especially since the product may undermine smoking prevention efforts because they look like the real thing and may lure nonsmokers, including children.

“There is not sufficient evidence that [they] are safe products for human consumption,” Timothy O’Leary, a communications officer at the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative in Geneva, said this week.

The laundry list of WHO’s concerns includes the lack of conclusive studies and information about e-cigarette contents and their long-term health effects, he said.

Unlike other replacement therapies such as patches for slow delivery through the skin and some inhalers and nasal sprays, they have not gone through rigorous testing, O’Leary said.

Nicotine is highly addictive and causes the release of the “feel good” chemical dopamine when it goes to the brain. It also increases heart rate and blood pressure and restricts blood to the heart muscle.

Ruyan — which means “like smoking” — introduced the world’s first electronic cigarette in 2004. It has patented its ultrasonic atomizing technology, in which nicotine is dissolved in a cartridge containing propylene glycol, the liquid that is vaporized in smoke machines in nightclubs or theaters and is commonly used as a solvent in food.

When a person takes a drag on the battery-powered cigarette, the solution is pumped through the atomizer and comes out as an ultrafine spray that resembles smoke.

Hong Kong-based Ruyan contends the technology has been illegally copied by Chinese and foreign companies and is embroiled in several lawsuits. It’s also battling questions about the safety of its products.

Most sales take place over the Internet, where hundreds of retailers tout their products. Their easy availability, O’Leary warns, “has elevated this to a pressing issue given its unknown safety and efficacy.”

Prices range from about US$60 to US$240. Kits include battery chargers and cartridges that range in flavors from fruit to menthol and nicotine levels range from zero — basically a flavored mist — to 16mg, higher than a regular cigarette. The US National Institutes of Health says regular cigarettes contain about 10mg of nicotine.

On its Web site, Gamucci, a London-based manufacturer, features a woman provocatively displaying one of its e-cigarettes.

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