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Higher Florida cigarette tax could increase sales of e-cigarettes

When Florida's new $1 tax on cigarettes takes effect in about three weeks, it should discourage at least marginal and cost-conscious smokers from lighting up as often and dissuade youngsters from getting hooked in the first place.

At least in theory.

One unintended consequence might be to encourage folks to try what I must admit is a weird concept to me:

The electronic cigarette.

A Chinese invention, the "e-cigarette" is basically a steel tube meant to look like a cigarette. It contains a battery, a nicotine cartridge and an atomizer. Puff on the end and the cigarette glows (thanks to the battery and a light-emitting diode), and the nicotine-water combo is vaporized so you can breathe in the mixture as if it's a nicotine hit from a tobacco cigarette.

When you exhale, there's a white mist that looks like smoke. Only the e-cigarette is never lit. No tobacco. No tar.

Proponents say e-cigarettes are better for the smoker than tobacco cigarettes, eliminate nasty secondhand smoke concerns and — this is a claim I can't confirm at this point — could allow people to "smoke" anywhere, from restaurants to movies to hotel rooms, because there is no "smoke."

Opponents say the e-cigarette is some perverted mechanism that allows direct inhalation of nicotine, which is addicting. And e-cigs come in flavors, from strawberry to chocolate, raising questions about appealing too obviously to young people.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration spent several months investigating e-cigarettes. FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley told me the agency has determined e-cigarettes, as well as e-cigars and e-pipes, are "drug device combustion products." So far, the FDA has "refused entry" at U.S. borders to the products. Most e-cigarettes are made in China.

Seventeen shipments have been stopped since March, Riley says. But beyond border patrols, the FDA offers no stance on whether a device that vaporizes liquid nicotine for inhaling is a yea or a nay. And if any e-cigarettes are made in the good ol' U.S. of A., a border ban seems pointless, or even protectionist.

Some e-cigarette companies, arguing the FDA has no jurisdiction over the products, have sued the federal agency in federal court.

One South Florida provider of e-cigarettes, Smoking Everywhere Inc., says you can buy its $100 e-cigarette kit and flavor cartridges ($10 apiece) at the Sawgrass Mills Mall in Sunrise or at more than 100 resellers. It's even available on Amazon.com.

Antismoking groups, from the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network to the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, all call for e-cigarettes to be removed from the market.

Good luck. E-cigarette sales more than doubled in the past year to about $100 million, says the young industry's own trade group, the Electronic Cigarette Association.

The trade group's vice chairman, James Watt, owns
Instead Electronic Cigarettes in Altamonte Springs, near Orlando. In fact, Florida is home to several e-cigarette businesses.

In this recession, we may have discovered one of Florida's new growth industries.

Try this slogan on:

You came for the sunshine and citrus. You'll stay for the e-cigarettes.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Higher Florida cigarette tax could increase sales of e-cigarettes 06/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 11:45am]
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