(NNCNOW.com) --- Electronic cigarettes; a healthy smoking cessation tool or a harmful, unregulated substance? With no federal rules, the benefits and risks of e-cigs are uncertain.
As vaping becomes more in vogue, dissenting opinions on state and local levels are keeping e-cigarettes at the center of a growing debate.
A pack a day smoker for 15 years, Brian Annis says he liked the effect cigarettes had on his body.
“I liked the throat hit, I liked going outside with a bunch of people, the social aspect of it."
Annis, owner of Lake Effect Vapor in Duluth believes e-cigarettes are the silver bullet to smoking cessation.
"The hand to mouth, the oral fixation, you know the whole throat hits,” he said. “With an electronic cigarette you get that stuff. With the patch or the gum you don't get that, you just get the nicotine."
His co-worker, Ryan Jones agrees. Vaping has also helped him kick a bad habit.
"As a person who previously smoked cigarettes, and is now using e-cigarettes, I feel better,” he said. “I breathe better and I don't stink."
An e-cig is a battery-powered device that uses a heating system to turn nicotine or other flavored chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. The amount of nicotine is marketed and sold at varying levels.
Concerns rise from health officials, because the FDA has not yet approved e-cigarettes as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit.
"People look at e-cigarettes as being a less harmful substance than a traditional cigarette but in reality it's not harmless,” Jessica Zweifel, of Essentia Health’s Tobacco Free Services said. “We don't know what is in the e-cigarette, and we have to wait for more long term studies to say whether they are safe."
In the absence of regulations, manufacturers can add any chemical to the e-juice or e-liquid, and sell it to users. In 2009 the FDA warned there are risks associated with e-cigarettes. Trace amounts of nine contaminates including a toxic chemical found in anti-freeze were found in two leading brands.
"It's the wild west out there,” Pat McKone of the American Lung Association said. “There are over 200 manufacturers of e-cigarettes and there are no regulations on them."
The American Lung Association is urging the Obama administration and the FDA to standardize the markets.
Annis and Jones say their product is safer than smoking, because it contains fewer chemicals than a regular cigarette.
"We know every ingredient that goes into it,” Jones said. “We are in on the building process.”
With e-cig shops sprouting up across the nation, many local governments are passing their own regulations, including Duluth.
"It essentially regulates it as if it were a cigarette," Duluth City Councilor Linda Krug said.
Across state lines, Superior for now, does not plan to follow suit.
"Right now we don't see any reason to put an ordinance on it," Superior City Councilor Mike Herrick said.
The city's first vape shop, "The E-Cig Crib" opened the first week in November.
It's a retail business Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen welcomed with open arms.
"If the FDA hasn't come out with an opinion or ruling on what is the good and the bad about the product, I certainly am not capable of judging the product," he said.
For now, Lake Effect Vapor says it will continue to tout e-cigs as being a safer alternative to smoking tobacco.
"I think it's hopefully here to stay,” Annis said. “I hope that the FDA does responsibly regulate it."
Until a competent national regulatory body deems electronic nicotine delivery systems safe, The World Health Organization says "consumers should be strongly advised not to use the products, including e-cigarettes"