Linda Marie Uva had been smoking Newport Lights ever since she was a freshman in high school.
The 51-year-old kept up the two-pack-a-day habit until last November when tragedy struck: Her husband, Pat, succumbed to a brain aneurism.
From that moment, Uva, a mother of two, decided it was time to quit cigarettes once and for all. "My kids don't deserve to lose another parent," Uva, of Stamford, said.
Before his death Pat had given her a gift. It was an electronic cigarette (or e-cig), a pen-like device that delivers a flavored nicotine mist, but no smoke or smell, to the user. She began using the products before losing her husband, but began to rely on them more as a quitting tool after his death. Now, Uva's habit is going up in, well, vapor.
"I want to do it for myself and my kids, and I want to do it for my hubby," she said. "That's something I silently promised."
Uva is among the more than 2 million Americans who have turned to electronic cigarettes as an alternative to smoking or as an aid to quitting. In 2011, about 21 percent of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used electronic cigarettes, up from about 10 percent the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A largely unregulated product first introduced to the American market just four years ago, e-cigs have triggered intense debate. Some health organizations and policy makers argue there's not enough research on the benefits or consequences of e-cigs. However, consumers, manufacturers and even some physicians praise the product as nothing short of life-saving.
"There have been a large number of laboratory studies that look at what ingredients are in e-cigs and the basic conclusion is that e-cigarettes are much safer than regular cigarettes," said Michael Siegel, professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.
Siegel, a Yale University graduate who has been researching tobacco for more than 20 years, points to several reasons why e-cigs are safer than the real thing -- namely, the 4,000-plus chemicals separating the two products.
"No chemist in their right mind would believe that a product that delivers nicotine without tobacco could be as dangerous as a product that contains more than 4,000 chemicals and kills more than 400,000 people a year," said Siegel, who published his own study on the subject in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Public Health Policy. "This device is helping thousands of people."
Uva believes she is one of them. She used to burn through two packs a day; now, she only lights up a few times a day. Uva knows that the nicotine in her e-cig isn't great for her health, and that it would be best if she get off the drug entirely.
"But it's helping me quit the worse thing," she said, "So how bad could it be?"
Bad enough, health organizations and policy makers argue. Little is known about the health impact of e-cigs, and what is known hardly demonstrates the product's safety, they said.
She pointed to a 2009 study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that found that some brands of e-cigs contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals, such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze. E-cigs have not been approved by the FDA.
In the past, some e-cig manufacturers have claimed the device aids in smoking cessation. However, as a quitting tool, e-cigs are all smoke and mirrors, Sward said.
"There's no evidence to show they can help smokers quit," she said, adding that people who want to stop smoking should "use a therapy that has been approved by the FDA for that purpose."
Lawmakers have echoed these concerns. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently joined four other senators in calling for the FDA to issue regulations asserting authority over tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, and to restrict the "sale, distribution and marketing of e-cigarettes and other nicotine products."
In a recent phone interview, Blumenthal warned that e-cigs can be a gateway to the real thing. That is especially true of young people, he said, since the flavors (including chocolate and bubblegum) added to some brands "are designed to appeal to them.
"The bottom line is that (e-cigs) contain nicotine, which is one of the most powerfully addictive substances in the world," he said. "A lot of people who use them may be unaware of health issues or wish to ignore them."
Nicotine has been found to be a risk factor associated with heart disease, according tot he American Heart Association.
Siegel acknowledged this fact. Even with his support of e-cigs, he's not advocating for long term use of the product.
"You can and should wean yourself off," he said, adding that users can gradually reduce the nicotine dosage contained in their devices.
However, as far as Siegel is concerned, the question isn't whether or not e-cigs are safe -- the question is whether or not they're safer than cigarettes. For him, the answer is "yes" and that makes them a viable alternative to the real thing.
He believes some health organizations and some lawmakers are making an "ideological argument, not a science based one. It sounds good to tell everyone, `You have to quit,' but that doesn't work in the real world," he said.
Uva knows firsthand the challenge of quitting -- she's tried before, but with mixed results. The e-cig is the best shot she has at cutting down. It's also the best shot she has at fulfilling a promise.
"I started with the e-cigs in August when my hubby and I went away on vacation," she said. "Now, I really want to continue with them because they are helping; I want to do it not only for myself, but it would have made my hubby so proud and my kids will be thrilled."
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