Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Mike Mangione can name more reasons than he has non-nicotine-stained fingers for switching from regular cigarettes to an electronic alternative.
He is among an estimated 2.5 million people now inhaling nicotine through a battery-operated device that heats liquid to make vapor, which takes the fire - and the tar and many other cancer-causing chemicals found in cigarettes - out of smoking.
At 41, he's conscious of breathing easier and assumes inhaling flavored water vapor must be healthier than taking in the 600 ingredients in cigarettes - 4,000 compounds when burned, according to the American Lung Association - including acetone, formaldehyde, tar, benzene, butane and lead. And he spends $30 to $40 a month "vaping." He used to spend $150 a month on Marlboros.
Plus, as a single man, he says "girls don't like smoking. It's a deal-breaker."
That goes double in his family. His twin brother, Steve, also quit smoking cigarettes about a month and a half ago. Their father, Dale, bought them their first devices, which cost $60 to $80, because they helped him give up tobacco.
That means the ranks of the 46 million smokers in the United States, according to American Medical Association estimates, are three fewer.
Scott and Lorrie Covington, owners of Vapin' in the Cape on Del Prado Boulevard South, also gave up what some users call "analog," or traditional, cigarettes in favor of the electronic variety.
E-cigarettes have grown up since a disposable cigarette facsimile with a weak battery began appearing in convenience stores a couple of years ago. The rechargeable next generation is sold in tobacco stores. It is composed of a rechargeable, battery-operated heating element, a replaceable cartridge that usually dispenses liquid nicotine, and an atomizer that, when heated, converts the contents of the cartridge into a vapor.
The couple's first whiff of this industry - growing steadily, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, and certainly poised to challenge the financial interests of cigarette companies - came in November 2010, when they ordered starter kits online and tried yet another method of giving up cigarettes.
"Between us, what we were spending was equal to a car payment every month," said Lorrie Covington, who said she had been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 15 years and until trying electronic cigarettes "lived with Robitussin on the nightstand."
Scott Covington smoked a pack a day for 25 years.
When the starter kits ran out of battery life and liquid nicotine, the couple said, there was no place to replenish them. They ran out and bought cigarettes again.
So the former owners of an information technology company began researching products and the market and eventually went into business selling the devices and the liquid nicotine in flavors ranging from tobacco to fruit, candy, dessert, coffee, soft drinks and mixers. The sales counter at first was the back of their 1991 Honda Accord, then a local flea market.
The Covingtons opened the brick-and-mortar store and recently had to expand to a larger space, where they have five employees, all former smokers.
Most users are recognizable by the lanyard and thin pipe-like device hanging around their necks.
"It's almost become like a cult," said Lorrie Covington.
Several users reported using the devices inside stores without consequences, since the exhaled vapor is barely noticeable and doesn't smell like cigarette smoke.
Vaping is largely unregulated, although the FDA, through the courts, is trying.
A preponderance of medical organizations supports regulation by the FDA, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Medical Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
But to do so, the FDA must use its authority under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to regulate "tobacco products," because the nicotine used in the liquid is extracted from tobacco leaves. It has attempted to sanction manufacturers for claims based on electronic cigarettes as drugs or devices. But a federal appeals court ruled that the FDA cannot claim jurisdiction over the devices if they are not marketed as therapeutic.
And these legal distinctions are clouded in confusion, made worse by claims that electronic cigarettes contain antifreeze.
A similar compound, propylene glycol, is found in some liquids used in the devices, according to manufacturers and several independent sources. It is a food additive used in pharmaceutical and dental products that can be used to lower the freezing point of water, but it is not ethylene glycol, the toxic substance in antifreeze that is poisonous to humans and animals.
The FDA has asked for manufacturers' cooperation in standardizing ingredients, a task made difficult because components are often imported from other countries.
"Because clinical studies about the safety and efficacy of these products have not been submitted to the FDA, consumers currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, what types or concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals are found in these products, or how much nicotine they are inhaling when they use these products," reads an FDA publication on vapor cigarettes.
But local doctors have referred their patients who want to stop smoking, say the Covingtons and Justin Braatz, owner of Downtown Vapor on Boy Scout Drive in Fort Myers.
Bratz, 41, smoked cigarettes for 24 years before switching to the vapor variety. He said he previously had tried everything to quit, including "the patch, gum, lozenges." Although retailers can't claim vapor cigarettes are a smoking-cessation aid, they believe the results speak for themselves.
"I've had people who smoked for 45 years give me hugs because they're so happy they haven't had a cigarette," Bratz said. Smokers begin with liquid strengths based on the number of cigarettes they go through per day. A chart at Vapin' in the Cape recommends 16 to 18 milligrams of liquid nicotine for a pack-a-day smoker.
The goal for most smokers is to taper down the nicotine concentration over time. Liquids that are labeled as containing no nicotine at all are also sold.
Angela Wynn, a small-business owner who lives in Cape Coral, said she has been cigarette-free for almost three months. She is 42 and has used tobacco since she was 15.
"I am one of six family members who has quit this way," Wynn said. The lemon blueberry cotton candy and peanut butter flavors are her favorites.
The flavoring also has the attention of the FDA, which is concerned about vapor cigarettes' attractiveness to minors.
Neither store allows anyone under 18 inside.
Dayna Harpster, Fort Myers News-Press