Are e-cigarettes a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes?

LORI TUCKER-6 News Anchor

LENOIR CITY (WATE) - It's been more than 40 years since the federal ban on cigarette ads on TV and radio, but big tobacco is finding a way to get back on the air by marketing electronic cigarettes.

The devices still contain nicotine, but are they any safer than a regular cigarette? And are they even regulated?

Melissa Hobbs of Lenoir City smoked cigarettes for 14 years. She says trying to give them up was tough.

"I quit with just nothing, just by myself, and then I started back," Hobbs explained. "Then I quit with the patch and I started again. Then I tried Chantix and I didn't ever really quit."

Melissa's eight-year-old son Ephram was worried.

"I wasn't really happy," he said about his mother's use of cigarettes. "I saw commercials of people that smoked and whatever happened to them. I was not happy."

Melissa says after a talk with her son, that's when she knew she didn't want to smoke anymore.

But she had already tried to quit with no long-term success. Melissa said she heard about e-cigarettes, so she decided to order one of them online. Now, she's been tobacco-free since February.

Most e-cigarettes look like a traditional cigarettes, but there are a number of types and styles available in stores and online.

Nicotine is heated up inside the device creating a smokeless vapor. The only ingredients are water, flavoring, propylene glycol and nicotine.

The nicotine-infused vapor doesn't contain the harmful tar and carbon monoxide found in tobacco smoke, but are e-cigarettes considered safe?

Dr. Michael Green of Trinity Medical Associates believes safe is a relative term when it comes to the e-cigs. He prefers his patients try to quit tobacco by cutting back on smoking regular cigarettes until they finally stop.

When asked if he would recommend the e-cig to one of his patients, Dr. Green replied, "If somebody had tried and failed every other means to quit smoking cigarettes, I guess I would consider it."

Millions of people are doing more than considering it with e-cigarette sales expected to double this year to $1 billion. And big tobacco is strategizing a big opportunity.

Last month, R.J. Reynolds, the makers of Camel, Winston, and Salem cigarettes, rolled out "Vuse," saying it's not worried people will turn away from traditional tobacco just yet.

Former Facebook president and Napster creator Sean Parker is one of the investors pouring $75 million into N-Joy - one of the leading e-cig makers.

These smoke-free alternatives are only lightly regulated by the government, so there's nothing stopping them from being advertised on TV and in magazines. However, under federal law, e-cig makers cannot claim their products are good for you.

The Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over e-cigarettes. It's expected to toughen regulations on them, but there's no word on when that might happen.

E-cig smokers like Melissa say they hope to put down the device one day. For now though, Melissa said she's content with smoking a chocolate flavor with step down amounts of nicotine. Her son approves.