Jeremy Brock was working an overnight shift stocking shelves at a grocery store when he felt excruciating pain in his chest.
"I haven't felt anything that painful in my life," he says. "It was really hard to breathe. I couldn't breathe."
His lung had just collapsed.
Brock was taken to the hospital and given medication to ease the pain from the puncture in his lung. He says nurses didn’t tell him the cause of the incident but he thought it was likely due to his heavy smoking.
But traditional smoking is on the decline. And new nicotine-dispensing devices, electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, are on the rise. Brock transitioned to e-cigarettes two years ago.
Like cigarettes, most e-cigarettes do deliver nicotine, so users can still satisfy their cravings.
The nicotine in e-cigarettes is liquid and typically flavored. A rechargeable battery pack powers an atomizer. The atomizer heats the liquid blend, turning it to gas. A user will inhale that gas, and exhale a white cloud.
Witnessing people use e-cigarettes in public places can be startling, considering they require the same hand-to-mouth motion as smoking, but the process is called “vaping” because no actual smoke is involved.
There is a lot of hype, hopes and hoopla when it comes to e-cigarettes.
Dozens of shops have opened in South Florida to sell the products. One of those locations is VaporZone in South Miami, where Michael Caballero is a sales associate. He says smoking is archaic.
“Cigarettes are analog,” he says. “E-cigarettes are digital. That’s the difference and we’re in a digital age.”
Caballero says e-cigarettes encourage smokers to stop using traditional cigarettes without requiring them to break their nicotine addictions.
Smokers like Brock are hopeful that e-cigarettes will present reduced health risks and even end nicotine dependency.
“I don’t get the occasional cough every day [and] the mucus that comes up. I breathe better [with e-cigarettes],” Brock says. “I noticed a difference. I’m not worried about electronic cigarettes. I plan on quitting or getting down to no nicotine.”
But not everyone is certain about the trendy gadget's effects: Electronic cigarettes are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is still testing the products. And vaping is not federally regulated, while smoking is.
“We’ve seen cigarette-smoking rates drop. They’re pretty much on a negative path. However, when you get a new product out, people think [it's] less harmful and not much is known about [e-cigs], and there’s a lot of confusion,” says TJ Harrington of the Tobacco Prevention Center of Florida.
Amid the confusion is a hike in e-cigarette use, especially for kids in middle and high school. Teenagers are getting their hands on the products because there is no state or federal regulation limiting their use.
"It's kind of risky just to assume that the state will just deal with it," say Harrington, who works to educate both politicians and teens. "Every day that goes by you'll have more youth that experiment with these things. And it's not through Marlboro, it's through the Blu e-cig, [a popular brand]."
It’s estimated that nearly 2 million teenagers are using electronic cigarettes. The latest reports from the Center for Disease Control show that experimentation with the device doubled between 2011 and 2012 for that demographic.
“The first approach is to prevent our youth from using these e-cigarettes until we know more about the long-term effects. The focus now is on helping youth to avoid becoming addicted to the e-cigarettes,” says Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood).
Sobel is part of a group of Florida senators who support additions to a bill prohibiting minors from using tobacco products. The changes, if approved in the upcoming legislative session, would essentially make no distinctions between electronic and traditional cigarette smoking as it applies to children under 18.
Brock says he agrees with e-cigarette restrictions for minors. He was just 7 years old when he tried his first cigarette. By age 12, Brock was smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes regularly.
“Smoking, period, is not that great at all in my opinion,” he says. “I feel that you still have to be 18 to [use] electronic cigarettes, also. It’s the same thing as in smoking cigarettes.”