RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – An alternative to cigarettes is gaining steam in more ways than one. But there are serious questions about the long-term risks of these electronic devices.
E-cigarettes deliver nicotine through a vapor, not smoke. There is no tar, and over the long run they can be less expensive.
Using them, however, may still test the limits of your health -- and Virginia law.
Jimi Jackson uses a cigarette, every day. But he says, he's no longer a smoker.
"I says, 'I gotta have one of these. I mean, this is the best thing since sliced bread,'" he said.
In 2008, Jimi first discovered electronic cigarettes, the battery-powered devices that charge like a cell phone, deliver nicotine vapor from a cartridge, and even "light up" like the real thing.
Jimi was so impressed, he created Vapormaxx and opened a retail store, complete with tiny bottles of e-juice, or flavors.
"This is actually Kioki Coffee. It is tremendous," he said.
Now that more states, like Virginia, are banning smoking in bars and restaurants, Jimi says the e-cigarette industry, is on the way up, as in $100 million in worldwide sales.
"Because this, satisfies this. The hand-to-mouth, the oral fixation," Jimi said.
There is debate, though, in the medical community about whether these e-cigarettes can keep people from lighting up, or, if they are a 100 percent safe alternative.
A study at Virginia Commonwealth University questions the value of e-cigarettes.
"If there's not any consistency in what's in the cartridge, then how do we know that there's gonna be any consistency in the effects they produce?" said Dr. Thomas Eissenberg with the VCU Institute for Drug & Alcohol Studies.
And numerous questions remain about the long-term health risks.
"If this is a safe way of delivering nicotine that keeps people away from cigarettes, then I'm all for it. The question is: Is it safe?" Dr. Thomas said.
Another question: Is it legal in a restaurant?
Virginia's Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits cigarettes of any kind: even electronic ones.
"Under the statute, they are a 'cigarette of any kind' and therefore banned," said Gary Hagy with the Virginia Department of Health.
And that is what you refill.
But Jimi -- who previously smoked tobacco for 37 years -- is optimistic about the future.
He's about to start advertising on television, and expects e-cigarettes to be widely accepted some day.
Until then, he'll tell you: the winds of change don't come from lighting a match.
"I didn't smell like an ashtray, it was great!" Jimi said.
The VCU study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, and the FDA currently does not regulate e-cigarettes.
It would take an act of the General Assembly to make them legal under Virginia's restaurant smoking ban.