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E-cigarettes 'keep on rolling'

Sales of e-cigarettes have gone up more than 30 percent since the DL Tobacco Shop started selling the smokeless electronic cigarettes, according to manager Pam Do. Brian Basham/Tribune1 / 2
Many smokers, like Judy Splonkowski of Frazee, have turned to e-cigarettes to help them stop smoking. She hopes to wean herself off of real cigarettes and then the electronic ones later. Brian Basham/Tribune2 / 2

We see the letter "e" everywhere -- e-mail, e- commerce, e-cards, egads!

And just like everything else "e," e-cigarettes are also growing in popularity.

"They just keep rolling and rolling," said Pam Do, manager of The Tobacco Shop in Detroit Lakes, who says since they started stocking the product two years ago, sales for the e-cigs have gone up by more than 30 percent.

"To be honest, they don't work for everybody, but most of the customers do like them because it helps them cut down on whatever they smoke," he said.

So what are these technology-infused smokes all about?

Although they can vary in style, they all work about the same. They are battery-operated devices usually made to look like real cigarettes that even have nicotine filters attached, but instead of containing tar and carcinogens, the e-cigarette holds a liquid that when puffed on, vaporizes into an aerosol mist.

When running low on "steam," the e-cigarette is simply plugged into a computer or other USB component and voila! - it's re-charged.

The nicotine filters, which can be purchased in a variety of strengths, are changed every so often. "You get about two packs of cigarettes out of one filter, which costs about $3 each," said Do, who says customers are also happy about the price. (Once they've purchased the initial starter-kit for anywhere from $40 to $80 depending on the brand.)

Judy Splonskowski of Frazee picked up the e-cigarettes a couple of weeks ago for the first time after smoking a pack a day for 15 years. For her, it's been 15 years of regretting the day she started.

"I think I started because I wanted to lose some weight or something ... I don't know, it was dumb, whatever it was," she said, adding that she's tried to quit cold turkey several times.

"It's awful stressful," said Splonskowski, "if you don't have one available it's like ... oh my gosh, I have to have one."

But now what the 59-year-old really wants is a lot of time with her 16 grandchildren who also want Grandma Judy to quit.

"A couple of my grandkids say to me, 'Choose us over cigarettes, Grandma,' and so that's what I'm trying to do ... I want to choose them."

And Splonskowski hopes the e-cigarettes are just what she needs to help her do that.

"I'm now down to only smoking a few real cigarettes a day," she said, adding that she's also down to the lowest nicotine filter the e-cigarettes have to offer.

She says her intention with the e-cigarettes is to first wean off from the real cigarettes, and then the electronic ones

And although Splonskowski is giving this new method a try, she also knows it isn't FDA approved (it's still being researched) which makes her a little leery.

"I know it's probably not good for you either, but I think it's the lesser of two evils, and I really do feel better; I don't cough as much and I just have more energy."

But Dr. Jon Larson, a family practice physician at Sanford Health in Detroit Lakes, isn't as "stoked" about this new phenomenon.

He's run smoking cessation programs for several years, and finds a couple of problems with e-cigarettes.

"It's like quitting heroine by changing over to methadone," said Larson, "You're still being exposed to the nicotine, which is one of the primary problems that leads to coronary artery disease. It constricts your blood vessels and puts you at the same significant risk that regular cigarettes do."

Although Larson acknowledges smokers aren't taking in the smoke and carcinogens, he maintains the product isn't much better than the real thing.

So what about smokers like Splonskowski who are hoping the swap translates into quitting? Although the method seems to work for some, Larson believes the effectiveness of the e-cigarette for smoking cessation is equivalent to nicotine gum.

"And the problem with that is, you're still in charge of how much nicotine you're taking in, so you're subject to your own cravings and human frailty," said Larson. "The likelihood is much lower that you'll have success that way."

Larson says he's treated drug addicts who swear to him quitting heroine was easier than quitting smoking.

"The effects of nicotine become part of your central nervous system, so quitting smoking is very, very difficult because it becomes part of your physiology, it's a powerful addiction much more than most drugs," said Larson, who instead suggest seeking medical help for quitting.

He says there are a couple of fairly effective medications available now that either decrease the reward and cravings for tobacco or replace and block nicotine in the body.

He also says he believes "the patch" would have a more successful quitting rate than the e-cigarettes, because while they, too, still have nicotine in them, smokers aren't in control of how much nicotine they take in.

"With the patch, we bring you down in a controlled manner," he says.

But what's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander, especially when it comes to kicking a highly addictive habit.

For Judy Splonskowski, her secret weapon may or may not end up being the e-cigarette, but either way, she says she'll find a way to quit.

"I'm going to make it work," she said, "I'm determined ... I'm going to make it work."