PARIS — On a recent day in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, a line of 20 people spilled onto the sidewalk of a trendy new boutique, eager to get a taste of its latest gourmet offerings.
Olivia Foiret, the manager of ClopiNette, demonstrates filling an e-cigarette for a client.
A sign in the window promoted piña colada as the store’s flavor of the month. A woman wearing a Chanel jacket said she wanted to try peach.
But this was no temple of gastronomy. It was one of scores of electronic cigarette shops that have been springing up by the week in Paris as well as in numerous cities across Europe and the United States. Inside the ClopiNette boutique, shoppers can choose from among more than 60 flavors of nicotine liquid — including Marlboro and Lucky Strike flavors — all in varying strengths and arranged in color-coded rows. (ClopiNette is a play on “clope,” French slang for a cigarette.)
“It’s like visiting a Nespresso store,” said Anne Stephan, a lawyer specializing in health issues at a nearby law firm.
What’s driving her into the store is a desire shared by many: they want to give up smoking tobacco but don’t want to kick the smoking habit. After smoking 20 cigarettes daily for 25 years and failing to quit, Ms. Stephan said she had cut down to one a day in the three months since she began puffing on a so-called e-cig. Using technology that turns nicotine-infused propylene glycol into an inhalable vapor, e-cigarettes smoke almost like the real thing, without the ashtray odor.
While e-cigarettes are still a fraction of the $80 billion-a-year market for smoking products in the United States, the growing popularity of vaping, as the practice is known, has touched off a clash in Europe between retailers and regulators. On Wednesday, the British government announced it would begin treating e-cigarettes as medicines, “so that people using these products have the confidence they are safe, are of the right quality and work.”
E-cigarettes and other nicotine products will be licensed in Britain starting in 2016, giving manufacturers time to ensure that their products comply with all standards for medicines. The British regulator says e-cigarettes aren’t recommended for use until then, but it won’t ban them entirely. Government officials in France this month announced they might ban the e-cigarettes in public spaces. Italy is considering banning them from schools.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration tried to block the sale of e-cigarettes, claiming that they were unapproved “drug/device combinations.” Manufacturers successfully challenged the agency’s position, but in a 2010 ruling, a federal appeals court held that e-cigarettes could be regulated by the agency as tobacco products.
An agency spokeswoman, Stephanie Yao, said the agency was preparing to release for public comment a proposed rule to regulate additional categories of tobacco products.
Currently, the F.D.A.’s tobacco regulations apply to cigarettes, tobacco and smokeless tobacco.
“Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products,” Ms. Yao said in a statement.
Health officials say their safety has not been medically proved and the devices could encourage children to take up smoking. Some antismoking advocates, who are simply annoyed to see the gadgets glowing in restaurants and bars, call for a ban on their use in public places, the same ban in force for tobacco products.
The allure is unmistakable. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio was spotted puffing on an e-cig at Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood earlier this year, while the French actress Catherine Deneuve, a longtime heavy smoker, now puffs the electronic version in Parisian restaurants and even during news conferences.
Global sales jumped 30 percent in each of the previous three years to around $2 billion in 2011, with the European market around $650 million, according to a recent analysis by Euromonitor International. Retail sales of e-cigs in the United States reached $500 million last year. Although that is only about 0.5 percent of the overall tobacco market, analysts expect those figures to double this year and continue climbing.
“E-cigarette consumption could surpass traditional cigarettes in the next decade,” said Katherine Devlin, president of the London-based Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association. “Growth is exponential and there are no signs it’s slowing down. So there is a huge amount at stake.”
Currently, e-cigs are distributed by more than 100 small and medium-size firms like NJOY and White Cloud. Most are manufactured by a Chinese company, Ruyan, which invented the gadget that heats the nicotine solution into a smokelike vapor. The device, which also can have an LED light to mimic the glow of a burning ash, has been registered for patents in more than 50 countries.
But now, the makers of Marlboro and other big tobacco brands are rushing to get a piece of the action — especially to make up for lost sales as tobacco smoking declines in Western countries. Last year, Lorillard bought the e-cigarette maker Blu for $135 million. British American Tobacco, RJ Reynolds and Japan Tobacco International have also taken stakes in the new industry. In April, as cigarette sales fell 5.2 percent in the first quarter from a year ago, Altria announced it would soon unveil its own electronic cigarette. Earlier this month, Reynolds American said it would introduce a revamped e-cig with an ad campaign including television commercials, which are off-limits for tobacco cigarettes.
Certainly signs of growth are there. In 2011, the latest year for which data were available, more than 20 percent of adult smokers said they had tried e-cigarettes, double the rate in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Electronic cigarettes could account for nearly 5 percent of the value of all tobacco products in the next two decades, according to Euromonitor International. Analysts say such trends would also challenge the pharmaceutical industry, where stop-smoking products like nicotine patches and gums pulled in about $2.4 billion in 2011, not including prescription treatments.
“It’s tres à la mode,” said Olivia Foiret, the manager of the ClopiNette store on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, as customers crowded around the counter. “People want to stop smoking; they try one of these and they’re hooked.”
As an alternative to smoking tobacco, the devices have become such an attractive investment option that Sean Parker, co-founder of the now defunct music-sharing site Napster, is buying a stake in NJOY, one of the companies that makes e-cigarettes.
Mr. Parker has long donated to cancer research but is said to view the electronic devices as a safe alternative.
In December, European Union officials proposed regulating e-cigarettes and most nicotine liquids across the European Union as medical products. That would limit the nicotine content sold over the counter to 4 milligrams per milliliter — lighter than the lightest cigarette — or force manufacturers to put them through clinical trials.
The new rules could also radically affect how much money governments could take in through new taxes, a not insignificant consideration when declining tobacco sales are leaving sizable holes in national treasuries. In the first two months of 2013 alone, the Italian government, for example, reported a 132 million euro revenue shortfall from sliding cigarette sales. Nicotine liquid refills are not taxed in most European Union countries, and legislators think they could help make up some of the difference.
E-cigarette supporters say European officials are having a knee-jerk reaction that fails to recognize the devices as a “safer” alternative to smoking. They point to declarations from authorities like the Royal College of Physicians in Britain, which has said the devices can lure people away from traditional cigarettes and urged that they be made widely available. A separate 2011 study in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine said e-cigarettes “may hold promise as a smoking-cessation method.”
Retailers also protest that because they don’t market e-cigarettes to help smokers quit, e-cigarettes should not be treated as a pharmaceutical. “No one is claiming it’s medicine,” Ms. Devlin said. “It allows you to keep smoking.” They added that clinical trial requirements would make liquid nicotine commercially unviable, and are pressing for the European Union not to adopt new regulations.
European regulators cite a paucity of studies on the safety of routinely inhaling propylene glycol, a viscous chemical found in everything from asthma inhalers to antifreeze. It is deemed harmless by the Food and Drug Administration, but critics say it has not been adequately tested for chain smokers who might use the e-cigarettes during most of their waking hours.
Tonio Borg, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, has expressed concerns that e-cigarettes, with their tasty flavors and colorful tips, could be a gateway to smoking for the young. In France, where tobacco sales fell last year to their lowest levels in a decade, a recent survey among Paris school children between the ages of 12 and 17 found that 8.1 percent of more than 3,400 surveyed had experimented with e-cigarettes.
Pascal Somosierra, 50, a dapper floral artist who decorates Parisian gems like Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, said that since he bought a sleek black “Ego-C” model last month, he had been using it in his office, inside cafes and even on the Metro. “Some people look at me strangely,” said Mr. Somosierra, who said he instantly stopped his 30-year-old two-pack-a-day habit. “But I’m seen more favorably with this than when I’m smoking a regular cigarette.”
But he admits, “For a young person who doesn’t smoke, it can be tempting; there are all the flavors, and it looks cool.” He keeps his e-cigs out of reach of his children. “Think about it,” he said. “If even the company that makes Marlboro is jumping into the game, it’s a way for them to get nicotine into new smokers.”
*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.