ALEXANDRIA - Sitting across from a pregnant public health official, Terry Loeffler didn't think twice about puffing several times on his cigarette.
Despite statewide legislation banning smoking indoors, he leisurely blew smoke toward Jessica Peterson, Douglas County Public Health educator, while the two were sitting in a conference room at Henry's Foods in Alexandria last week.
Loeffler, the director of sales and marketing at Henry's, is a former smoker.
He was demonstrating a new product - Fifty-One, an electronic cigarette, which is known as an e-cigarette or e-cig.
Although the e-cigarette, which was developed in China, has been on the market for about two years, it hit the Alexandria area late last week.
Henry's Foods is the distributor of the new product.
Loeffler said Fifty-One is available for purchase in bars and a few convenience stores in Douglas County. The lakes area, he said, was chosen as a test market for the product, which some may find controversial.
The e-cigarette looks similar to a real cigarette with its brown filter and white body. The tip of the electronic device glows with a simulated red light when users take a puff or inhale. And after inhaling, users will blow out "smoke," which is actually vapor. The vapor, according to the Fifty-One Web site, contains mostly water and trace elements of nicotine and propylene glycol, which is typically found in food coloring, flavoring and mouthwash. Propylene glycol is on the safe elements list of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
When purchasing the e-cig, which will retail for $95, users will receive a kit containing two nicotine cartridges, one battery pack (this contains two lithium batteries) and one home charging system. One nicotine cartridge is about the equivalent of one and a half to two packs of cigarettes, said Loeffler.
Replacement cartridges will retail at $15.95 for five cartridges.
"This is a huge savings in the long run," said Loeffler. "It's between $1.75 to $2 equivalent per pack as compared to $4.50 or $5 per pack of regular cigarettes."
The price of actual cigarettes will climb even higher when a federal tax increase - from 39 cents to $1.01 - kicks in this April.
When explaining how the device works, Loeffler said the e-cig creates an illusion of smoking, but that it doesn't contain all the harmful things real cigarettes have like tar, carcinogens or cancer-causing agents.
There's no tobacco and the unit doesn't get hot or have any flames to it so users are not breaking any rules, he said, noting it is also odorless and there is no "ashtray taste" in your mouth.
"It was designed for people who are already smoking, but want a safe alternative," said Loeffler. "And the law says it's legal."
Peterson, who worked hard to get the smoking ban in place in Douglas County before the statewide ban was enacted, said that since the e-cig is such a new product, public health doesn't know what its stance is on it yet.
It has the same effects of a real cigarette without the negative components such as tar, carcinogens, tobacco, etc., she said.
"Nicotine is no worse than caffeine," said Peterson. "It's not cancer causing."
However, one concern public health has is the look of the e-cigarette and if people will be able to tell the difference.
Peterson also noted one other concern, which is whether or not the e-cig will become a gateway to real cigarettes.
"It's such a new product that I think we will just have to wait and see," said Peterson.
The law's take
Last week, Loeffler met with Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels and Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen to educate them on the product.
Because of the smoking ban, Loeffler wanted law enforcement officials aware of the e-cig in the event they are notified about people smoking in bars, restaurants or any other indoor facility.
Both Wyffels and Wolbersen had never heard of the product before being contacted by Loeffler.
And both of them believe the product will need a little research before they have an opinion on it.
"I don't know about the laws and how it will affect it yet," said Wyffels. "It's so new to me and there are a lot of unanswered questions."
Wyffels thinks the e-cig could be a solution for those who are addicted to cigarettes.
"For now, I want to keep an open mind to it," he said.
Wolbersen believes that there will be some confusion for bar and restaurant patrons over the new product and thinks there will be some calls on it.
He also shared some advice for people if they believe someone is "smoking" in places they shouldn't be. Customers in restaurants and bars should contact the manager on duty and have that person check out the situation.
"It would be best to have them (managers) handle it first before calling law enforcement," said Wolbersen.
He feels that part of the public will be happy about the e-cigarette, while the other part will be upset. And like Wyffels, Wolbersen wants to keep an open mind about the new product.
"If I have a concern right now, it's that they are not age-regulated," said Wolbersen. He noted that there are no current statutes that address the e-cigarette and that the use of the product is not regulated.
He added, however, that business owners can make their own decisions and rules regarding the use and sale of the product.
Loeffler noted that the Fifty-One e-cigarettes will be on display behind counters and will be under lock and key. Those selling the products will be instructed to only sell to customers who are 18 years of age and older. Purchasers will be carded, he added.
Loeffler hopes that the public will look at the product in a positive light and see it as a benefit.
"This is not a cancer-causing product," he said. "We want it to be for smokers who want to quit, not for those who haven't started. We don't want to say it is a means to quit, but that it is a better alternative."