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Our Opinion: E-smokes not so harmless?

The growing popularity of electronic cigarettes — a nicotine delivery system that creates a mist instead of smoke — is a trend that can be good or bad, depending on how e-cigarettes are used, and by whom.

On the plus side, they can be a pretty good way to quit smoking, based on antectodal evidence and at least one major study, released in late June by Italy’s University of Catania, which found that 13 percent of participants who used high-dose e-cigarettes quit smoking. Seventy percent of those who quit smoking eventually gave up e-cigarettes, too.

At first glance, it can be hard to distinguish an e-cigarette from a regular cigarette. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that create a vapor mist from a heated liquid solution when the user inhales on a mouthpiece.

The solution, or “e-juice,” and vapor mist, which looks like smoke, typically contain nicotine, but users can regulate the amount. That’s why some users say e-cigarettes have helped them quit tobacco — and wean themselves off nicotine altogether.

“As evidenced in this study, when people switch to electronic cigarettes, it absolutely makes it easier to quit nicotine use completely,” Michael Siegel told the Star Tribune newspaper. He’s a professor at Boston University School of Public Health who studies e-cigarettes. “It’s not as simple as saying people are substituting one addiction for another.”

The quit-rate for e-cigarettes is comparable to rates in other nicotine-replacement therapy studies, he said.

Across the country, e-cigarettes are catching on fast: National sales jumped to $500 million in 2012 and are projected to clear $1 billion this year. The devices are popular in Minnesota as well, especially since the state’s $1.60-a-pack tobacco tax hike went into effect July 1.

Minnesota deserves credit for being one of the few states to ban stores from selling the devices to minors, and they are not allowed in K-12 schools and some higher education campuses.

But other than that they are mostly unregulated and can legally be used anywhere in the state — indoors or out.

But most states have not regulated the products at all, which is why 40 state attorneys general (including Minnesota’s Lori Swanson) have called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarettes.

Big tobacco companies also sell e-cigarette products, and the fear is that they are using them to get kids addicted to nicotine.

Indeed, e-cigarette use among American middle school children has doubled in just one year, according to the American Lung Association. It has also doubled among high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Without FDA oversight, the tobacco industry is free to promote Atomic Fireball or cotton candy-flavored e-cigarettes to young people. The Lung Association, which has been battling Big Tobacco for a long time, says the use of sweet flavors is an old tobacco industry trick to entice and addict young children.

The Lung Association says there is no way to know whether e-cigarette vapor is safe: It says in initial lab tests conducted by the FDA in 2009, detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals were found in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various e-cigarette cartridges.

The bottom line: Keep them away from kids, and smokers, use them at your own risk.

The sooner the FDA is allowed to regulate the devices, the better.