TAMPA, Fla. - Touted as a safer alternative to traditional smoking, electronic cigarettes are supposed to give smokers their nicotine fix without the cancer-causing side effects of tobacco. But some have serious concerns that the battery-operated vaping devices may actually pose more dangers to users.
Gwynne Chesher lives in Florida, where smoking in most public places was banned more than eight years ago. She's been smoking for more than 40 years.
“In 1965, everybody smoked, it was an acceptable thing to do back then," said Chesher.
At her worst, Chesher was puffing a pack a day and eventually, she tried to stop.
"I tried the gum. It gave me a stomachache," she said. "Tried the patch. It made my heart beat fast and scared me."
So when her son recently suggested yet something else, Chesher signed up.
"You just inhale like a cigarette," said Chesher, as she explained how to use an e-cigarette. “It looks like smoke, but it's water vapor."
E-cigarettes, what some call "vaping," are battery operated. They have the look and feel of a traditional cigarette, without the smell, the smoke and the harmful side effects, say its supporters.
“I was really impressed," said Chesher.
Then her doctor weighed in.
“He was like 'No way! You can't use those!'" she said.
Dr. Mike Feinstein, a spokesman for the American Lung Association said, “People are inhaling some type of chemical vaporized compound into their lungs without really knowing what's in it."
Last year, the American Lung Association issued its own warning about e-cigarettes: “This is a buyer stay-away, a buyer health hazard, potentially."
Dr. Robert Greene treats lung cancer patients at the Palm Beach Cancer Institute and said the product is potentially a health hazard.
“There really is no information about whether they're safe or not, and that's part of the problem," said Greene.
He says with no real data on e-cigarettes, the three-year-old tobacco alternative may actually be more harmful that traditional cigarettes.
"The doses of nicotine that you get could conceivably be higher than what you would get in a typical cigarette," said Greene.
Ray Story is an e-cigarette distributor and CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.
"To make that claim is obviously ludicrous," he said. “At the end of the day when you look at an e-cigarette, is it addictive? Nicotine is addictive."
Authorities don't necessarily know what's inside of e-cigarettes, but the FDA tested a small sample just a few years ago and found a number of toxic chemicals including diethylene glycol, the same ingredient used in antifreeze.
“I understand they found all kinds of stuff," said Story. "At one point in time you may have found whatever you want to find. If it cannot be substantiated by the other side, you have to question their motive."
The findings forced the Food and Drug Administration to issue a nationwide health warning.
Meanwhile, Chesher says she's decided to wash her hands of anything to do with electronic cigarettes.
“I have no problem throwing them in the trash," she said.
According to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, e-cigarettes contain just five ingredients, all approved by the FDA. Recently, the FDA announced it will begin to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product.