Boston shopkeepers are rushing to sell electronic cigarettes, apparently driven by sales pitches from the nation’s third-largest tobacco company. Lorillard representatives have been offering retailers display samples and suggesting they stock the tobacco-free smokes.
The push comes amid a reignited national debate about the safety of electronic cigarettes, following last month’s announcements from the country’s two other big tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds and Altria, that they too will be jumping into the market.
Nikysha Harding, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, said the city has issued 61 permits to sell the battery-operated devices since March, more than five times the number awarded during the same period last year. In June alone, the city issued 28 permits, compared with the three her office gave out in June 2012.
“The Lorillard reps have been coming into stores and giving them free samples, or saying this is a new product,” Harding said. “Some of the store owners have put samples out not realizing they needed a permit.’’
Among the stores Lorillard’s representatives have visited is John Nguyen’s sliver of a corner shop, called Maria Store, in Dorchester. More than two dozen types of lottery tickets, candy, and condoms line the wall behind Nguyen’s counter. There are cigarettes too, though there are few takers these days.
But Nguyen said he is hoping the city permit he recently received to sell e-cigarettes, as they are popularly known, may add some sizzle to his otherwise lackluster sales.
“It’s another way for us to generate income,” said Nguyen, who is waiting for his first delivery of the devices, which resemble traditional cigarettes but use batteries to heat nicotine-laced liquid, producing a vapor that is inhaled.
Store owners across the state are selling e-cigarettes, but the state does not track the number of these retailers. An increasing number of Massachusetts communities have recently joined Boston, which passed regulations in late 2011 to treat e-cigarettes like tobacco products, banning their use in the workplace and restricting their sale to adults only. A number of states, including New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Maryland, have prohibited sales to minors, while others have curbed use in public places. Massachusetts has not taken either action.
Lorillard’s product, called blu eCigs, typically sells for $9.99 around Boston, but some devices from smaller companies are being sold for as little as $7.99, Harding said. That is less than traditional cigarettes, which typically go for about $8.50 a pack.
“Each e-cigarette will last about 400 puffs, which is equivalent to a pack or a pack and a half of traditional cigarettes,” she said.
The three big US tobacco companies, buffeted by decades of declining sales, have entered a national e-cigarette market already awash in independent purveyors. The smaller companies have typically hawked their wares online, promoting them using lower-budget social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Many health advocates worry that with big tobacco’s deep pockets, the marketing will become more aggressive, and even more youth-oriented, creating a young generation of e-cigarette smokers hooked on nicotine before researchers fully understand what risks the products may pose.
Already, Lorillard launched a slick cable TV ad for its blu eCigs with dashing movie actor Stephen Dorff playing a rebel. Spots from smaller companies, such as Logic, are popping up on hip-hop radio stations, promoting summer concerts. And in Internet ads, a sexy woman in a stylish hat, looking like a character straight out of the popular “Mad Men” TV show, promotes the e-cigs brand, which has packaging that features the slogan, “For a healthier lifestyle.”
The marketing borrows a page from glitzy tobacco company commercials that filled the airwaves before a federal ban on TV and radio cigarette ads four decades ago. (E-cigarettes are not considered tobacco products, so they are not covered by the federal restriction.)
Quang Tran is already sold. The 28-year-old former tobacco smoker, who runs his family’s Green Garden Liquor & Deli in Hyde Park, started selling e-cigarettes last month, after several customers asked for them.
“A lot of college kids have come in and purchased them,” said Tran, who recently started smoking e-cigarettes.
He said the devices seem to appeal most to the college crowd and to those a bit older who are trying to kick their tobacco habit.
Tran’s early experience captures a dilemma with which many public health officials are grappling. The devices, often sold in flavors such as berry, peach, and vanilla, seem to entice younger customers, which health advocates worry may lead them toward tobacco cigarettes. Yet the products have also attracted a following of older former smokers who swear they helped them quit tobacco.
Studies on this issue — and whether the devices pose health risks — are still pending. E-cigarettes are unregulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, making it difficult for consumers to know how much nicotine or other chemicals they may be inhaling. The agency has announced its intention to regulate the products as tobacco but has not provided a time frame. Regulation would subject the products to the same standards and scrutiny as conventional cigarettes.
Manufacturers contend e-cigarettes are safer because they do not contain tar, which has been linked to lung cancer, and do not have a flame. Regulators point to the potential long-term dangers of inhaling vaporized nicotine and other chemicals.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization, is skeptical that e-cigarettes hold benefits.
“If these products are truly aimed at middle-aged adults to give them an alternative to smoking tobacco, the ads would look very different,” he said.
So would many of the products, said D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
“When you look at this,” said Wilson, referring to a strawberry-flavored, red-and-black tie-dyed e-cigarette with a red filter, “it would be hard to imagine an adult smoker who is weaning himself off tobacco would go for this.”
Jason Healy, founder of Lorillard’s blu eCigs, said adults enjoy flavored e-cigarettes. His company offers them in several flavors, including Cherry Crush, Peach Schnapps, and Java Jolt, though, he said, not ones that are youth-oriented like “berry strawberry” or “cookies and cream,” which are sold by other companies.
“Everyone is saying that these are appealing to kids but we are not seeing it,” said Healy. “We do not market these products toward children.”
The company’s internal marketing data, he said, show that 35- to 45-year-olds are its largest customer base.
“This reminds me of a messy divorce,” Healy said. “Often people drag the kids in to win the argument.”Globe correspondent Sanjena Sathian contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.