Sara Jacobs smokes an InLife electronic cigarette in her office during work.
COLUMBUS - Sara Jacobs smokes a pack of Marlboro Lights a day, but she has an alternative when she's at work or other public places where lighting up is banned.
Ms. Jacobs, 21, of Columbus, can dig into her purse for her electronic cigarette. The slim, battery-powered device resembles a traditional cigarette, but is marketed as tobacco-free. E-cigarettes contain an atomizer that turns liquid nicotine into a vapor that's inhaled, giving the user the sensation of smoking.
"It's very convenient," said Ms. Jacobs, who said one nicotine cartridge lasts her about three days and gives a stronger buzz than a cigarette. "My husband doesn't complain about my mouth tasting like a chimney."
Ms. Jacobs, a buyer for the Garden, an adult store on North High Street, said she purchased her InLife brand e-cigarette about a month ago, when her store started selling them.
She uses it at work when she's too busy to take a smoke break and has tried it out at restaurants, bars, and airports.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved e-cigarettes and has halted 17 shipments of them from coming into the country since March 1, said Karen Riley, an FDA spokesman. She said many of the blocked shipments arrived from China, where most e-cigarettes are made.
The FDA says e-cigarettes are "drug-delivery devices," not tobacco products, and is evaluating them on a case-by-case basis, Ms. Riley said. She acknowledged that it's possible that some overseas shipments still are passing through.
"Clearly, the mode of action here is the drug," Ms. Riley said. "It's nicotine, it's addictive, and we have some real concerns about that."
There was no mention of e-cigarettes, however, in legislation recently approved by Congress that would give the FDA the power to regulate the content and marketing of cigarettes, Ms. Riley said. President Barack Obama, a smoker, has said he will sign the bill.
Meanwhile, e-cigarettes are being sold in Ohio and are untouched by the statewide smoking ban.
The ban does not include e-cigarettes because they do not burn tobacco or any other plant, said Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health. Still, he said, "We don't see them here as a safe alternative to smoking."
The Delaware, Ohio, General Health District recently issued an advisory about e-cigarettes, warning that they are neither safe nor healthy. Health officials plan to warn school administrators about them and will ask them to prohibit their use, said Jesse Carter, the health district's spokesman.
"We're very certain that school administrators wouldn't approve of these things in schools, but what if a young person shows up with one and says, 'I'm a smoker, and I'm trying to quit and this is my stop-smoking aid.'•" Mr. Carter said. "We think it might be a situation where the policy needs to specifically say 'electronic cigarettes,' so there's no doubt whatsoever."
"If e-cigarettes become the next big thing, do I think children are going to try it?" said Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Ohio. "Most definitely."
There are concerns for users of all ages, Ms. Kiser said. "There have been no scientific studies of these devices, and so we don't know anything about them. We don't know what it does to your system when you inhale evaporated nicotine. We know that the best thing for your lungs is clean air."
Most e-cigarette users are smokers looking for an alternative to tobacco without the side effects, said Jack Leadbeater, chairman of the Electronic Cigarette Association and president and CEO of the NJOY brand of electronic cigarettes based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mr. Leadbeater said his company sells only to clients who are of legal smoking age.
"There are people out there that believe that the product is being marketed to children," Mr. Leadbeater said. "Our company and companies within the association are certainly not doing that in any shape or form."
Puff N Stuff, a shop along North High Street, has opted against selling e-cigarettes for now. "We've stayed away from it because it doesn't have the [FDA] approval," said Joseph Allen, general manager. "We have no idea what it is. It's a cartridge filled with whatever they tell you."
The Joint, a smoke shop also on North High Street owned by the same company as the Garden, has been selling them for about a month. A starter kit costs $139.99 and includes one unit, a charger, and eight nicotine cartridges.
"People are more interested in the fact that you can smoke anywhere," said Aaron Winchell, the Joint's assistant manager. "That's a plus to having one of those."