TODAY   |  June 13, 2013

Sales of electronic cigarettes on the rise

Sales of electronic cigarettes, a smoking alternative, are expected to double this year. But are they really a healthier cigarette alternative? NBC’s Erica Hill reports and NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman discusses the health claims.

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>>> as more americans try to kick the smoking habit, one product is experiencing a bit of a boom. sales of electronic cigarettes are expected to double this year, but that leads to a question, how safe are they? "today's" erica hill took a look at that. erica, good morning.

>> reporter: hi, savannah, good morning to you. they claim to be the healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. with more people making a switch, they've certainly come a long way. remember when smoking was cool, even sexy? how times have changed. hollywood's new cigarette of choice just may be electronic.

>> just take a regular.

>> reporter: actress katherine heigl got david letterman to try one back in 2010 .

>> you have no excuse now to smoke a real cigarette.

>> reporter: and she's not the only celeb puffing and pushing e-cigarettes.

>> it lets me enjoy smoking without affecting the people around me.

>> reporter: makers tout the gadgets as a healthier alternative because there's no smoke. e-cigarettes use batteries to keep neck tin in a cartridge, creating a vapor that's inhaled, then exhaled as water. but there's also no data yet on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. the fda, which does not yet regulate them, warns there's no way to know "whether e-cigarettes are safe." one thing we do know, they're big business .

>> it was worth $500 million in 2012 . analysts project it's going to be worth $1 billion in 2013 is.

>> reporter: overall traditional cigarette sales are down, falling 4.5% in the first two months of this year. while e-cigarettes aren't the only factor for that dip, there's no denying their rise in popularity. in 2011 , 21% of adult smokers had used e-cigarettes, up from just 10% the year before. and there may be one other incentive, cost.

>> estimate that they're somewhere between $800 and $900 in savings a year if a consumer switches from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes.

>> reporter: something you can bet marketers will capitalize on.

>> and traditional tobacco companies are also taking notice. altria, who's stable brand is marlboro, announced plans for its own electronic cigarette recently. savannah?

>> let's take a deeper look with dr. nancy snyderman , she's nbc's chief medical editor. nancy, good morning to you. the fda says there haven't been studies to determine officially whether they're safe. is there a feeling among the medical community about whether these e-cigarettes are safe for people?

>> we know that nicotine is the addictive compound that brings you into the tent. then it's the 4,000 chemicals and tar that kill you in regular cigarettes. if you look at a nicotine delivery system versus a nicotine and carcinogen delivery system, which is a regular cigarette, doctors will say it's safer and maybe a stepping stone to get off real cigarettes, but are there long-term tests to see if the other compounds are safe? not really.

>> they're safer than traditional cigarettes, but are they safe? that's still a real question.

>> nicotine alone in the doses you get in a real cigarette is not really a problem. it is addicting, but it's not what hurts you. it's the stuff that comes along with it.

>> do you like the idea of using the e-cigarette as kind of a stepdown for someone who needs a gateway to quitting but doesn't want to go cold turkey ?

>> i'm a cancer surgeon. cigarettes are what kept me in business for 30 years. anything that allows people to step away from tobacco is, to me, a decent first step. there's prophylene glycol and glycerine, and they're in a lot of household compounds we use anyway. certainly better than arsenic and a lot of the compounds we see in real tobacco.

>> would you worry about a nonsmoker or a former smoker picking it up and saying, these are safe. why don't i give it a try?

>> that's just it. if you get addicted to nicotine, you then get lured back to the smell and the ambience of real cigarettes. nobody's looked at that. the gateway idea of drug addiction has always been controversial. i think, as it stands right now, big tobacco absolutely knows these are a hot item because, one, people die from cigarettes or they quit. so what does big tobacco have to do? they have to recoup those people. to see this as a hot market, they're absolutely going to do it. altria, which is really philip morris , they're looking forward to this. i suspect this is going to be a big global investment.

>> always good to get your take on it. thank you