5 Must-Knows About E-Cigarettes

Before you light up with these alternatives to regular cigarettes, there are a few things you might want to consider.

Your clothes don't smell, but they still deliver potent chemicals.

E-cigarettes have evolved from a novelty item to a $1 billion industry in the past few years, thanks to a belief that the battery-powered devices are safer than regular cigarettes, and probably some effective advertising as well. E-cigarettes heat up nicotine liquids and use vapor rather than smoke to deliver nicotine to the body, but before you light up, or turn on, an e-cigarette, there are some things you might want to consider.

Unlike cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, nicotine patches or inhalers, e-cigarettes are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Consumer groups have been pushing the FDA to add e-cigarettes to the list of regulated tobacco products, and a federal judge ruled in 2010 that they should, but the agency has delayed its rule-making several times.

Word is that the FDA officials will announce a process for new rules in October 2013. Brazil, Norway and Singapore already have banned e-cigarettes, France is imposing the same rules as real ones.

Even the FDA says there's no way to tell whether e-cigarettes are safe or not.

The amount of nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals has not been tested. Nor has the benefits of using them. "There's a lot we don't know about them," said Erika Sward, assistant vice president at the American Lung Association. "It's clear there is much to be concerned about."

Sward said initial studies by the FDA in 2009 found detectable levels of toxic chemicals including an ingredient used in anti-freeze. Other studies should second-hand emissions containing formaldehyde, benzene and another carcinogen, according to Sward.

With more than 250 kinds of e-cigarettes for sale on the U.S. market, there's a huge variety of quality and ingredients. Elicko Eli, the chief operation officer of Vaporin, a Miami-based manufacturer, says his e-cigarettes are made in China.

In 2010, the FDA sent warning letters to five companies stating they were making unsubstantiated claims and "poor manufacturing processes," including failing to establish quality control practices.

Manufacturers say e-cigarettes are a better alternative to regular cigarettes for existing smokers. "It's not a product that is going to stop you from smoking, but is going to make you use it instead of smoking," said Eli. "Smokers are always looking for an alternative. They don't have a way to quit."

Last week, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control released a study indicating that e-cigarettes could act as a gateway drug for young smokers to try real cigarettes, and that teen use of e-cigarettes has doubled in the past year.

Jenny McCarthy and Stephen Dorff have appeared in ads promoting e-cigarettes, joining a list of celebrities who have tried to make smoking sexy dating back to the 1930s. But the CDC says smoking is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States, killing 443,000 people each year.