What you need to know about e-cigarettes, post-Katherine Heigl

Movie queen Katherine Heigl smoked one. Now other alternative-seeking tobacco addicts want one. We have the lowdown on the e-cigarette: where you can get it, what you should expect to pay, what you should consider -- and why it'll save you money over regular cigarettes.

The e-cigarette industry has been expecting you. Since Heigl "lit up" her electronic cigarette on The Late Show with David Letterman, visits to e-cigarettedirect.com, which sells the Veppo brand, have increased by 10%, said Keith King, vice president of sales and marketing.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated, tobacco-free cigarettes that allow users to inhale vapor either with or without nicotine. The vapor is free from tar, carbon monoxide "and hundreds of carcinogens that are found in regular cigarettes," said the e-cigarettedirect.com site copy.

E-cigs are being marketed by many as healthier, odorless alternatives to cigarettes, though few will make an official claim that it helps kick the habit. "I cannot say it's a quitting device," King told WalletPop, though "customers have used it as such."

We don't want to be the buzz kill, but the FDA has tested e-cigarette samples and found that they contained carcinogens and diethylene glycol, an antifreeze element. It is legal to smoke them in public spaces, although some states are reportedly pondering a ban. (Read about some actions taken by government agencies in August and September.)

Starter kits online generally range from $50 to $140. They usually include an e-cigarette, cartridges that contain the flavor and desired nicotine level, rechargeable batteries and a charger. Among the brands with search-engine popularity are V2, which offers an economy kit for $59.95 "to start upgrading your health" and standard kit for $74.95. ECigarette was one of the few we found that sells only nicotine-free e-cigs, beginning at $129 for the whole package. Dieter Fiebig, founder of ECigarettesUSA.com, wrote on the company website that his wife died of lung cancer at age 41 and perhaps she would have had a different future had she switched to a nicotine-free e-cigarette.

Whatever brand you choose, you can bet the Marlboro Man that you will save money. King used Veppo as an example. The $100 kit delivers the equivalent of 30 packs of cigarettes, he said. That's a little more than $3 a pack. From then on, consumers only need the e-liquid refills, which cost $28.99 and provide another 30 packs' worth. That's less than a dollar a pack. Either scenario amounts to far less than the $6 to $7 a pack cigarettes cost. Veppo also sells a disposable e-cigarette ($13.99) that contains the equivalent of 30 cigarettes. E-cigarettes are sold in stores, too; most manufacturers produce e-cigars as well.

E-cigarette makers are hoping they can exhale at some point after health officials give the product their full attention. Perhaps then could the industry convey a more certain message about the benefits. With the FDA watching like a grandmother ready to scold, the industry is performing a delicate marketing dance. Are e-cigs a lesser evil, healthier alternative or a life-saver? Nobody is saying for sure. Nobody is allowed to say for sure.

At least the e-cigarette already has an unofficial spokeswoman. Heigl, the former Grey's Anatomy regular who now specializes in big-screen romantic comedies from Knocked Up to the upcoming Life as We Know It (Oct. 8), told Letterman as she dragged on her SmokeStik that she tried cold-turkey, the patch, the gum and a drug called Chantix. None of them took.

But in one talk-show appearance, she became the leader of the cigarette-alternative pack.
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