SOUTH COUNTY • Harry Kholer slips the stick to his lips and draws through it like a cigarette. A red light on the tip glows for effect. He exhales a small cloud of curling gray vapor across his kitchen table.
It smells vaguely like cooling steam.
Kholer, 67, is a “vaper,” a true-believing practitioner of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes. He said he took up cigarette smoking at age 8, burned through three packs a day for decades and developed emphysema. He didn’t quit until he took his first hit of an e-cigarette three years ago.
“I still have the habit, but I’m not inhaling all the bad stuff,” he said at his home in Mehlville. “I get all the nicotine I need.”
His nonsmoking wife, Donna, chimed in: “Had he not switched to these, he’d be dead by now.”
That’s what they tell all their customers. Harry and Donna Kholer sell e-cigarette kits with devices they import from China and liquids they mix for the faux-smoke sensation. Their Move2Vapor is a mom-and-pop business in a wide-open, burgeoning and unregulated market that is attracting the big tobacco companies, which are launching advertising campaigns and pushing slick display cases in convenience stores.
Anti-smoking organizations are pressing the federal government to at least regulate the devices, if not restrict them pending lengthy studies. Last week, 16 organizations, including the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, urged President Barack Obama to press the Food and Drug Administration to quickly approve regulations.
“This delay is having very real public-health consequences,” the letter said.
On Tuesday, 40 attorneys general, including Missouri’s Chris Koster and Illinois’ Lisa Madigan, followed up with a similar pitch to the FDA. The agency has said it will produce something by Oct. 31, but previous such dates have come and gone.
Erika Sward, national spokeswoman for the Lung Association, said there has been too little research into the claims of e-cigarette sellers and too much marketing that looks disturbingly like the bad old days. Cigarette ads were banned from TV in 1971.
“These are classic tobacco-industry tactics, using flavors and glamorizing smoking,” Sward said. “There has been very little research on the contents of these things, and we don’t want to take the industry’s word for it.”
On Sept. 5, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of youths who have tried e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. That report helped inspire the latest calls by anti-smoking groups.
The FDA once banned the importation of e-cigarettes, but a federal appeals court overruled the agency in 2010. The court said the agency could regulate them, and anti-smoking groups are impatient for action.
It all has happened quickly. Invented in China, e-cigarettes were oddities in the United States even only a few years ago. Users were likely to draw stares and ridicule. Industry watchers say that at least 250 companies sell them in this country, many over the Internet. Nobody’s sure.
Meanwhile, annual sales growth has been about 30 percent, says Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog in New York, who monitors the tobacco business. She estimated that e-cigarettes could churn $1.8 billion in sales this year and surpass cigarette use by 2023.
Lorillard Inc. of Greensboro, N.C., seller of Newport and Kent cigarettes, is marketing an e-cigarette called Blu, with ads featuring actor Stephen Dorff and actress-model Jenny McCarthy, who speak of guilt-free puffing. They confidently exhale their drags, just like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall did in the movies 60 years ago.
E-cigarettes come in different styles but in two parts — a battery, often hidden in what looks like the tobacco part of a cigarette, and a cartridge that holds the liquid. The cartridge often resembles a filter. The liquid usually is propylene glycol — stage smoke — and is mixed with nicotine and one or more of many flavors, including standard tobacco.
When a “vaper” sucks on the device, the battery powers a coil that heats enough liquid to create the inhaled vapor. The user then exhales as with a cigarette.
Kholer said inhaling and exhaling are psychologically important to many former smokers, making e-cigarettes more attractive than nicotine gum or patches. Sward, of the Lung Association, said it would be better for smokers to use FDA-approved cessation methods.
E-cigarettes have some support in the medical world as a workable lesser evil. Dr. Walt Sumner, associate professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine, has studied the issue and interviewed vapers and believes e-cigarettes are a safer way for people addicted to nicotine to get that drug, if they must have it.
Sumner said the vapors probably aren’t dangerous and certainly are much better than tobacco smoke — for smokers or people around them.
“I have been to vaper meetings and people have exhaled toward me all day, and I’ve had no reaction at all,” Sumner said. “Anecdotally, people who use them say they feel better and believe it a better way to manage their nicotine problem.”
He opposes any use by young people. “Early exposure to nicotine causes changes in the brain that makes addiction more likely,” he said.
Banning sales to teens also seems to be popular among many fledgling e-cigarette advocacy groups, such as the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association and Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives. But no single group has arisen as the authoritative voice.
In all but a few cities across the country, no-smoking ordinances governing public places don’t apply to e-cigarettes. Craig LeFebvre, spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department, said vapers can puff away at local restaurants. He said the department has received few complaints, and not many more calls from people asking if they are legal.
In St. Charles County, where smoking is allowed, local vapers hold periodic gatherings at Side Pockets, a sports bar and restaurant in St. Louis. Chantel Davis, the manager there, is glad to have them.
“The vapers are 1,000 times better to be around than regular smoke,” said Davis, a former smoker. “I can’t really smell it. It doesn’t stick to my hair.”
The early vapers were brave people, she said, because of the kidding they received. “But now a lot of people are doing it,” she said.
Martin Pion of Ferguson, a longtime anti-smoking activist in the St. Louis area, said he generally concedes their value to addicted smokers, but doesn’t like the trend toward glamorous advertisement. Pion said he wants the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes — and wants local ordinances amended to keep them out of public places.
“If they are allowed in restaurants, there will be never-ending confusion,” he said.