Roberta Keller tried everything she could think of to kick her pack-and-a-half habit of more than 50 years — gum, patches, medication, even an experimental drug through a Stanford University clinical trial — but nothing helped her quit smoking for longer than three months. Then a friend told her about “this vaping thing.”
After a little research, the 72-year-old Sunnyvale woman bought an electronic cigarette device and experimented with the different liquids, called e-juices, the device heats up to create an inhalable vapor. That was 17 months ago, and she hasn’t had a regular cigarette since then.
E-cigarettes, battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine and other flavors through a vapor, have come under increasing attack from health experts who say not enough is known about the risks they pose, nor is there scientific proof to show they help people quit smoking. But others, including some doctors, say there is anecdotal evidence of short-term benefit for people looking to kick the habit.
Dr. Michael Schivo, an assistant professor of internal medicine at UC Davis Health System, said e-cigarettes have helped some of his patients when other methods have failed.
“If someone has tried unsuccessfully all this other stuff, and this is what’s helping them quit regular cigarettes, I support them,” said Schivo, a pulmonologist.
Schivo said he does not recommend that anyone use e-cigarettes, however, and he makes sure his patients understand his concerns, namely that no one knows the health impacts of using the devices, which remain largely unregulated. He’s also concerned that vaping in public “normalizes” smoking behavior, especially among youths.
Choice of young smokers
Concerns about e-cigarettes — also known as vape pens, e-hookahs and mods — have escalated as the popularity of the devices has soared since they first hit the U.S. market in 2007. E-cigarettes have been especially popular among young people. More teens are trying them now than regular cigarettes, according to a study released in December by the National Institutes of Health.
California banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but there is nothing in federal or state law to regulate the liquids that go into the devices. The chemicals may vary dramatically from one product to the next as a result, and what’s listed on the labels may not be accurate.
Last month, California Department of Public Health officials declared e-cigarettes to be a community health threat and warned people not to use them. The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland this month put 19 e-cigarette companies on notice that they will be sued if they fail to put chemical warning labels on their products.
Fewer unsafe chemicals
Studies show e-cigarettes contain at least 10 chemicals on the state’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. While health officials say exposure to any one of those chemicals is unsafe, more than 250 dangerous chemicals are associated with combustible cigarettes.
“When you put an electronic cigarette next to a traditional cigarette, the e-cigarette has some attractive benefits,” Schivo said. “It doesn’t have the chemicals involved in regular cigarettes, and you don’t light them on fire.
“The jury is still out (on vaping), though the public is starting to embrace it and people are starting to get some benefit from it.”
Many users of e-cigarettes say they helped wean them off their dependence on nicotine, improved their health and prevent them, as one person said, from “smelling like an ashtray.”
Keller, who had a heart attack two years ago, is thrilled to have finally found something that worked.
“You have this thing in your hand that somewhat emulates a cigarette, and you put it to your mouth. You see the vapor come out, and it has the look of smoke,” she said. “I really think it’s a psychological thing, that you’re still 'smoking’ even though you’re not.”
Appeal of flavorings
Syruss Flyte, 45, of Antioch said he’d been trying to quit for most of the 29 years of his pack-a-day habit. Two young twin boys and a wife who is allergic to smoke added to his motivation.
Since switching to e-cigarettes a year ago, Flyte has turned vaping into somewhat of a hobby. The software engineer has been on the quest for the perfect vaping device and is learning how to make his own e-juices by extracting flavors from such as like green tea and Earl Grey.
Flyte said the health benefits have gone beyond not having smoke in his life. The flavorings have also helped curb his snack habit and helped him lose weight. “I can keep up with the kids without huffing and puffing,” he said. “They’re 6 and still want me to fly them around like Superman.”
Brett Waldon of Concord said he’s been able to reduce the amount of nicotine he vapes to low levels and hopes eventually not to use nicotine at all. The 28-year-old loan processor and former smoker prefers flavors such as fruit-favored cereals and raspberry creme, and now finds smoke and tobacco to be “disgusting.”
While he supports governing where people can vape in public, he doesn’t want the habit to be so regulated or taxed that it becomes more expensive than smoking.
“I’m constantly mindful of when I vape,” he said. “If you wouldn’t smoke a cigarette there, either ask or don’t do it.”
In addition to helping him off of tobacco, Waldon credits vaping with expanding his social circles. He’s made friends through online vaping groups and regularly visits his favorite vape bar, Vapor 1, in Walnut Creek. “We hang out, chat, watch the Super Bowl,” he said. “It’s really turned into almost like a New Age bar.”
'Out of the demographic’
Keller also said vaping has improved relationships with her husband and friends because they’ve stopped complaining about her smoking and the smell. But she had a different experience when she visited her local vape bar.
“Here I am, this 72-year-old who walks into a vape shop, and they go, 'Huh?’ I’m way out of the demographic,” she said.
Everyone there was very nice to her, Keller said. “I think they cater to people who like that heavy metal rock music and stuff like that.”
Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter:@vcolliver