Bob Clark didn't have any plans to quit smoking.
He smoked about 20 bowls of pipe tobacco a day and maybe 10 cigarettes, give or take a few.
But a recent visit to his doctor changed his mind.
“I wasn't a chain smoker — I was a heavy smoker,” he said. “And I decided that enough was enough, especially when I found out that I had some precancerous cells on the bottom of my mouth.”
Clark soon bought an electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, a device some Oklahomans are using to try to quit smoking. And some e-cigarette researchers say within 10 years, e-cigarette users will surpass the number of smokers in the U.S.
E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Essentially, they're a smokeless way to ingest nicotine, although some e-cigarette users choose products that don't have any nicotine.
The term “vaping” comes from the vapor that comes out when e-cigarette users use the device.
Nationwide, about 21 percent of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's up from about 10 percent in 2010.
They're becoming an increasingly more common choice for smokers trying to quit, but public health officials have not added e-cigarettes to their list of viable ways to kick the habit.
Rather, Jennifer Lepard, of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said the research that's been performed on e-cigarettes isn't solid enough at this point to warrant an endorsement.
“We don't want to discourage anybody who is looking to quit smoking cigarettes,” Lepard said. “We do, however, believe that there are more scientifically proven ways to quit.”
Those ways include calling the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline at (800) QUIT-NOW, which provides smokers with free nicotine patches, lozenges or gum, and also a free quit coach.
For now, people can use their e-cigarettes just about anywhere that will let them.
Oklahoma's current smoking law was mostly written in 2003, before e-cigarettes were popular in the state, Lepard said.
“There's a lot of debate right now as to what their proper place is in our law,” Lepard said. “And there's nothing that would prohibit a company or private business from choosing to not allow them if they wanted to do so.”
Since he bought his e-cigarette, Clark is down to about two cigarettes a day and three bowls of pipe tobacco.
Clark is optimistic about the potential benefits of switching to an e-cigarette. He won't miss the mess of tobacco or the stains on his teeth. And he is hopeful that he won't have to repaint the inside walls of his home because of the stain from the smoke.
And the people around him will no longer have to deal with his secondhand smoke.
“Everybody that smokes probably would love to quit, and I think that each individual has to make that decision, and it's a hard one,” he said. “It's not easy, but this vaping will make it easier for you.”
Clark, 67, has smoked for the past 50 years. He remembered standing behind a barn, smoking with friends in seventh grade.
“I can remember smoking as early as back in the 1950s,” he said. “When I grew up, it wasn't a big deal. If a kid had a quarter, they could probably buy a pack of cigarettes from a cigarette machine somewhere.”
Theodore Wagener isn't of the opinion that e-cigarettes are worse for people than cigarettes.
Wagener, a researcher at the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center, said research has shown that e-cigarettes produce less toxic vapor than cigarettes — between nine and 450 times less toxic — and are more similar to nicotine inhalers, a product used to quit smoking, than to cigarettes.
The main reason for that difference is — the worst part about cigarettes is the burning of tobacco. Nicotine itself is not really that harmful, although it's not harmless, he said.
“If all smokers just completely used the nicotine lozenge or chewed nicotine gum for the rest of their lives, there'd be no grants, nothing to try to curb nicotine gum usage,” he said. “Nobody would care because it's just not that harmful.”
Compared to regular cigarettes, the amount of chemicals found in e-cigarettes that cause cancer — referred to as carcinogens — is “astronomically low,” he said.
Some studies have shown trace amounts of carcinogens in e-cigarette vapor, but those carcinogens are found generally in anything with nicotine, even pharmaceutical products, like the nicotine inhaler.
That's because most nicotine used in patches, gum, lozenges, cigarettes or e-cigarette liquid is derived from tobacco, which causes trace amounts of carcinogens to be in the products.
Wagener and his team are in the midst of studying several aspects of e-cigarettes.
They recently looked at secondhand vapor from e-cigarettes and found “nothing scary.” They focused their research on whether diethylene glycol was found in e-cigarette vapor, a chemical found in antifreeze that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had found in e-cigarette vapor.
They didn't find it or any other surprising chemical. This is not to say e-cigarettes are harmless. Wagener said everyone would be better off not smoking or vaping anything.
But if given the option, e-cigarettes appear to be a cleaner means of delivering nicotine into a person's body.
“Initial reports show it's not completely harmless,” he said. “It's a lie if someone says, ‘Oh, this is just like nicotine and water.' When it's heated and delivered, it changes a little bit and these things aren't incredibly pure. But comparing it to the regular cigarette, way better. Comparing it to the nicotine inhaler, the nicotine inhaler is better.”