The arrival of electronic cigarettes has raised a red flag for health officials and others who worry the activity of "vaping" nicotine will hook young people into a new addiction that could last a lifetime.
In Colorado, the concern is heightened by the arrival of tobacco giant RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. Beginning this month, the maker of Camel cigarettes and other tobacco products began selling its new e-cigarette - called Vuse - in Colorado as one of four test markets.
"We've done a lot of work to make it not cool to smoke and we'd hate to see that rolled back," said Stephanie Walton, youth policy coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Also known as personal vaporizers, e-cigarettes broke into the American market six years ago. They look like cigarettes, but do not contain tobacco. They are actually battery-operated inhalers that turn nicotine into a vapor. The liquid, or "E-Juice" that is vaporized can carry a range of tasty-sounding flavors such as cotton candy and peach and names such as "Bikini Martini" and "Choco Loco." E-cigarettes aren't smoked, they are "vaped."
Studies have long determined that nicotine is as addictive as heroin and cocaine, leaving health officials like Walton concerned.
"If children see e-cigarettes as popular and fun and start using them that can lead to a lifetime of nicotine addiction," she said.
Many Americans report they've never heard of e-cigarettes, but the industry is generating $500 million in sales annually. Business is expected to surpass $1 billion annually within the next couple of years.
E-cigarettes are generally sold in places where tobacco products are available, as well as in specialty shops and in shopping malls. Since at least 2009, the federal Food and Drug Administration has warned about potential health risks associated with e-cigarettes. In addition to nicotine, the products contain substances such as propylene glycol and artificial flavors that may, the agency warns, penetrate deeply into the lungs. However, the products - at least for now - are not regulated.
More than a dozen states, including Colorado, have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. But Walton and others are concerned that advertising, and the tasty-sounding flavors, will directly appeal to young people.
"We would love to see the FDA look into this, especially with some of the larger tobacco companies really taking an interest in these products now," Walton said.
But some vendors who sell e-cigarettes say that they promote the product as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and a way to wean people off of tobacco products.
Within three days of last summer's mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado-based e-cigarette company, VeppoCig.com, offered free trial kits to anyone who had been at the theater and was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. "Above all, we are a company that cares for the health of our customers. We understand that they are going through a difficult time and we want to help," the company announced.
John Paul Pollock, of The Vapor Store in Golden, described e-cigarettes as "a dignified alternative for people who smoke."
However, Walton rejects comparison to other stop-smoking products - such as the FDA-approved nicotine patch and nicotine-infused gum. "There is no research that shows that (e-cigarettes) are an effective cessation or stop smoking aid or device," she said.
Still, e-cigarettes are catching on worldwide. A recent survey found that nearly 10 percent of Parisian schoolchildren between the ages of 12 to 17 have tried them. There are many active e-cigarette forums and Facebook pages. One website discussion in Colorado asks if people can "vape" in casinos in the mountain gambling town of Blackhawk and advertises meet-ups where fellow "vapors" can connect.
Since e-cigarettes are not a tobacco product, companies can get around 42-year old laws that ban cigarette advertising. The largest concentration of e-cigarette ads are online. But, with big companies like RJ Reynolds entering the marketplace, some predict advertising on TV, radio and billboards is not far behind.
"By around August we should start seeing significant TV advertising, as well as online," said Colorado-based marketing executive Brent Green. In addition, he said, "there will be live sampling at nightclubs and festivals where people gather."
Green, a critic of e-cigarettes, highlighted the dangers of romanticizing e-cigarettes. For example, recently actor Leonardo DiCaprio was seen vaping in public.
"You show celebrities, you show cool adults using the product. Kids always aspire to act and react like adults. They want to be grown up," said Green.
It is unclear why R.J. Reynolds selected Colorado as its test market for the new product. During a recent news conference, R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company president Stephanie Cordisco would only say that "Colorado represents just one of our major states as we are rolling this out."
Company officials did not return subsequent calls from Colorado Public News.
Even the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says it doesn't know why Colorado was selected. "We're not sure why. We would love to know," said Walton.
The Centers for Disease Control reports nearly one in five Coloradans smoke cigarettes, ranking the state 10th nationally.