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How I Got Hooked on E-Cigarettes Hints at Growing Market

Photographer: Judith Haeusler/GalleryStock
Photographer: Judith Haeusler/GalleryStock

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The smokiest journalist hangout in Berlin had gone smoke-free. So had I, sort of.

I stood hunched on the sidewalk, out in the cold, blowing puffs of propylene glycol, the billowy stuff in theatrical special-effect smoke that is also a key ingredient in electronic cigarettes.

I’d just asked to use it inside. The waiter looked confused. “That might not be a good idea,” he said.

More than two months earlier, I decided to quit smoking for 30 days using an e-cigarette. As I puffed on my e-cigs in offices, restaurants and bars in Berlin, Istanbul, London and New York, I soon realized I had traded one addiction for another. Yes, smoking the electronic variety makes quitting the real ones easier, but it also kept me hooked on nicotine.

Like that waiter, my friends and colleagues were sometimes as confounded by my new obsession as they were unsympathetic to my old smoking habit.

“Why don’t you just quit?” one acquaintance asked me.

If it were that easy, I would’ve done it already. I write about health issues and I had reached a point where I felt like the last living health reporter to smoke. Things hit a low point in early September, when to my own disgust I lit up at a cardiology conference. There’s something pathetic about taking a cigarette break next to 30,000 heart experts.

Then I read a study that made me think I’d found a way out: New Zealand doctors had given people who otherwise would have been smoking a pack or more a day e-cigarettes to help them stop. The quit rate was abysmal -- just 7 percent gave up smoking completely. What caught my attention was this: a majority of test subjects cut their cigarette use in half.

Fat Cigar

What, I thought as I puffed on an American Spirit back home in the courtyard of Bloomberg’s Berlin office, if I tried this too? It’s not clear whether e-cigarettes, a market that Euromonitor International Plc estimated will double to $7 billion by the end of next year, are safe in the long term, but surely they would be better for me -- and less embarrassing -- than the real thing.

Two weeks later I stood in an e-cigarette store near my apartment, trying to decide between something that looked like a fat metal cigar and a cigarette-sized version that came with a charging case very much resembling an iPhone.

The shop owner told me he’d smoked as many as 30 cigarettes a day before switching two years ago. This, he assured me while blowing tremendous clouds of vapor out of his own contraption, would fix me up for sure.

I took the iPhone lookalike.

Rocky Start

E-cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine while leaving out the usual cocktail of tar, arsenic, formaldehyde and other poisons and cancer-causing chemicals. Instead of burning tobacco, they use battery power to heat a nicotine liquid, producing a vapor that users inhale into their lungs and exhale into a white cloud that looks like a puff of smoke. Some e-cigarettes dispense with nicotine altogether, producing only flavored vapor.

Based on Euromonitor’s estimate for next year, Bloomberg Industries analysts calculate that global e-cigarette sales may soar to $2.3 trillion by 2050. In the U.S., the battery powered cigarettes may outsell tobacco by 2028, according to BI’s model.

“This industry is probably in the top of the first inning,” said Kenneth Shea, a BI analyst. Mathematical models can’t fully predict how many smokers will switch, what type of e-cigarettes they’ll choose and where they’ll buy them, he said. “Everybody is different. They smoke for different reasons.’

My efforts to quit started off rockily.

The night before I planned to make the switch, to head off future temptation, I met with a friend who helped me smoke my last pack of real cigarettes. I woke up feeling terrible with no desire to smoke, exactly as planned.

Toxic Taste

My e-cigarette proved problematic. It was difficult to refill with nicotine liquid, and when I puffed on it, the fluid seeped out onto my lips and into my mouth. That tasted just as toxic as real cigarettes. (The legal representative for its Shenzhen, China-based maker, Joyetech, didn’t return phone calls or a fax asking for comment on its product.)

Grumpy with nicotine withdrawal and surrounded by smokers at a wedding that weekend in the Swiss Alps, I gave in and bummed a cigarette. Then I put a pack of Gauloises on the room bill. I told myself the devil I knew was better than ingesting nicotine liquid all night long. Still, I felt guilty.

‘‘Cut yourself some slack,” said Chris Bullen, the researcher who led the e-cigarette quitting study. Bullen heads the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland, and I called him to tell him about my undertaking. “One or two slip-ups isn’t the end of the world.”

After the wedding relapse, I had resolved to continue the experiment. During a business trip to New York, I ordered a Halo, an American brand I’d seen praised in online forums.

Polite Stares

As I waited for the delivery, short-term salvation came from a free sample I got from a colleague. Njoy, as the product is called, was cigarette-sized and yielding to the touch, with a white paper hull and a vapor that tasted almost like the real thing.

The New York City Council added e-cigarettes yesterday to a ban on smoking in offices, bars, restaurants and parks. Still, New Yorkers I encountered appeared unfazed by the e-cigarette, while Londoners stared politely and Berliners (whose bars play famously fast and loose with the indoor smoke ban) ignored me and just kept on smoking the real thing. Everywhere I tended to ask for permission rather than light up outright. I was too cautious to try “vaping” inside airplanes or fancy restaurants. Aside from the once-smoky Berlin journalist hangout that sent me to the sidewalk, the only time I faced a definite “no” was in a London wine bar.

Cough Gone

In the end, I found my rhythm with the Halo, which can be refilled and re-used. I bought flavors that taste like chocolate and caramel. I missed the sense of a defined beginning and end that comes with a real cigarette. I liked the milder vapor of the e-cigarette, though, and vaping started feeling almost too easy.

“You’re getting addicted to that thing,” my boyfriend told me one night when I’d been puffing on it for almost an hour straight while watching TV.

This definitely is not the painfully virtuous way to quit. Still, I don’t cough anymore and I can count on my hands the times I’ve smoked real cigarettes since I finished that pack of Gauloises back in September. What started out as a 30-day experiment has transformed me from a smoker to a bit of an e-cig addict.

Does that count as quitting? I don’t know, but it must count for something. Bullen, the e-cigarette researcher, said the switch might buy me “years of extra life.”

While I still need my nicotine fix, that sure sounds like progress to me.

To contact the reporter on this story: Naomi Kresge in Berlin at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at

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