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Are smokeless cigarettes safer? E-cig explodes in smoker's mouth

February 16, 2012 |  9:54 am

E-cigarette_
Electronic cigarettes and cigars are billed as a safer way to get a nicotine high, but a Florida man learned just how dangerous they can be this week. One of the devices exploded in his mouth, ripping out part of his tongue and several teeth while badly burning his face.

"He is very, very lucky," Fire Chief Joseph Miller of the North Bay Fire Control District told The Times. The man, identified as Tom Holloway, 57, was taken to a local hospital for treatment Wednesday, then transported to an Alabama hospital that specializes in burns. He has since been released. "It could have been a lot worse," Miller added.

Emergency responders said the device that Holloway was holding in his mouth acted like "a bottle rocket." Holloway was in his home office at the time, and some carpet and chair cushions also burned.

Electronic cigarettes and cigars  -- commonly called e-cigarettes and e-cigars -- are all the rage even though their safety is hotly debated. They use a nicotine cartridge and a battery. The battery creates an electrical charge that releases the nicotine vapor. The user inhales that familiar shot of nicotine,  without the smoke.

Until now, controversy has largely centered on federal regulatory issues and whether consumers are being misled by a device that some say could actually be more toxic than regular cigarettes because of the secondary chemicals used. But this week's explosion will obviously raise more immediate safety questions.

As you might imagine, the incident -- and ensuing publicity -- isn't good P.R. for the burgeoning industry of smokeless cigarettes and cigars.

Thomas Kiklas, co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Assn. told The Times that he believes the device that Holloway used was not the commonly sold kind, but a specially modified device designed to give the user a turbo-charged blast of nicotine. (He likened it to the difference between a push lawn mower and a gasoline-charged lawnmower.) He said on his site that it is too soon to jump to any conclusion about possible product failure.

Miller, the Niceville, Fla.-based fire chief, said he'd never heard of the device before, but assumes that it was a one-time fluke. "When I heard 'electronic cigarette,' I said, 'What in the heck is that?' "

The injured man has since called to thank the emergency responders for their quick action. "He was very, very thankful."

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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

File photo: An e-cigarette. Credit: Gerry Broome / Associated Press

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