KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sharon Bosworth is running out of ways to break the grip of the cigarette.
Suffering from emphysema, the 51-year-old Overland Park, Kan., woman has tried gum, the patch and classes on how to give up smoking.
Now she is turning to a cigarette for the 21st century, one that relies on electricity, batteries and liquid nicotine instead of matches, fire and tobacco.
“This is my best chance,” Bosworth said. “It’s either going to be cold turkey or this.”
The device is called an electronic cigarette, and it’s starting to surface in mall kiosks around the nation.
Electronic cigarettes are being touted as a healthy alternative to tobacco, but the federal government is troubled by tests showing that some contain cancer-causing chemicals.
The Food and Drug Administration wants to regulate e-cigarettes as a drug-delivery device, similar to nicotine gum, lozenges and patches.
And because the devices are sold in flavors like apple, strawberry and vanilla, regulators also are concerned that kids are being targeted.
“This is presented to a young person as an essentially harmless product,” said Michael Levy, a compliance division director for the FDA.
“We are concerned about the chronic use of these products and what effect that might have on consumers without having been shown that they are, in fact, safe.”
Last week, the FDA lost a legal battle when a judge ruled that the government couldn’t stop e-cigarettes from being imported on grounds that they’re a drug-delivery device. The judge wasn’t convinced that they posed a public health threat.
If the ruling stands, experts say it will be up to the states to look out for consumers.
And don’t expect local smoking bans to keep the product out of public places.
Started in China, the e-cigarette has been on the market for about five years and has been gaining popularity in the United States in the past couple of years. Increasingly, ads are cropping up on the Internet.
There is reportedly no domestic manufacturer of e-cigarettes, which are powered by a rechargeable battery that looks like a cigarette — with a red light on the tip that appears to be burning.
The device turns liquid nicotine into a vapor that smokers inhale much as they would a regular cigarette.
Starter kits run from $70 to $180, but sellers say that in the end, smokers pay the equivalent of $2 a pack, compared with $6 to $10 for regular cigarettes.
It’s a $100 million industry, with at least 3 million users in the United States.
At Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, sellers offer a tantalizing pitch for anyone looking to quit smoking.
Mounted on the kiosk are flat-screen televisions playing a video that includes two physicians — lung and cancer specialists — vouching for the safety of e-cigarettes.
As a bonus, the “cigarettes” are billed as something that people can use at the office, in bars and on airplanes — because they produce vapor, not smoke.
“Common sense tells us this product isn’t any more dangerous to an individual than a cigarette,” said former Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon, president of the Electronic Cigarette Association.
“Why would we want to get rid of one more option for people to try as an alternative?” he asked.
Last summer, the FDA issued a warning about electronic cigarettes after tests found that samples contained carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, including an anti-freeze ingredient.
Before the judge ruled last week, the agency had stopped some shipments into the United States and was reviewing its other options.
“People who are marketing these products need to come into the FDA drug-approval process and show to the agency’s satisfaction that the products are safe,” Levy said.
Some consumers, too, are curious about what’s in them.
Jana McCullough of Raymore, Mo., tried one recently at a kiosk. Other than being a little heavy, she said, it had the same flavor as a cigarette.
“Is it the same thing as a cigarette?” she asked.
Across the country, local and state officials are taking action because of what they don’t know about e-cigarettes.
The industry won a victory in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill banning e-cigarettes, largely on technical grounds.
But last summer, the Oregon attorney general sued the e-cigarette company Smoking Everywhere, charging that the company made false health claims and targeted kids. The California attorney general filed a similar lawsuit against the firm last week.
New Jersey and New York’s Suffolk County prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in public places like restaurants. And they have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 19.