At the Henley Vaporium, one of a growing number of e-cigarette lounges sprouting up in New York and other U.S. cities, patrons can indulge in their choice of more than 90 flavors of nicotine-infused vapor, ranging from bacon to bubble gum.
The lounge, located in Manhattan's trendy Lower East Side, features plush seating, blaring rock music, and fresh juice and coffee. A sprawling sign on one wall lists all the carcinogens that e-cigarette users avoid by kicking their smoking habits and using the e-devices instead.
But the growing popularity of e-cigarettes has not escaped the notice of the industry's critics, who have stepped up calls for new regulations, including bans on their use in public places, even though the scientific evidence about exposure to their vapors remains inconclusive.
Selling for about $30 to $50 each, e-cigarettes are slim, reusable, metal tubes containing nicotine-laced liquids that come in exotic flavors. When users puff on the device, the nicotine is heated and releases a vapor that, unlike cigarette smoke, contains no tar, which causes cancer and other diseases.
The product, introduced in China in 2006, has become a worldwide trend at least in part because it may help smokers of regular cigarettes break the habit.
"It's an addiction - not everyone can quit cold turkey," said Nick Edwards, 34, a Henley employee who says he kicked a 15-year cigarette habit the day he tried his first e-cigarette. "E-cigarettes give you a harm-reduction option."
That's one reason why the market for e-cigarettes is expected to surge, reaching $2 billion by the end of 2013 and $10 billion by 2017, according to Bonnie Herzog, an analyst at Wells Fargo Bank in New York.
Herzog said the U.S. market alone could top $1 billion this year. She predicts that by 2017 e-cigarettes sales will overtake sales of regular cigarettes. That estimate does not take into account the impact of potential government regulations on sales.
E-cigarettes may help smokers save money too. Edwards, for one, says he cut his $60 monthly cigarette bill in half when he switched. On top of the cost of the device, the smoking liquids cost around $10 per refill.
Despite the perceived benefits, critics worry that the addictive nicotine found in e-cigarettes could lure more people into smoking and discourage others from quitting all together.
"Essentially e-cigarette companies are selling nicotine addiction," said Dr. Neil Schluger, chief scientific officer for the World Lung Foundation, which advocates for tobacco control.
"Once you have