From a distance, it looks like Tal Broustin is lighting up a cigarette, right in the middle of Arundel Mills, a clear no-no. And he is trying to get others to take drags, too, luring passersby to his kiosk by asking if they are trying to quit smoking.
Up close, it is clear that Broustin is taking puffs not from an actual cigarette, but from a battery-powered gadget designed to look like the real thing. Called an "e-cigarette," or electronic cigarette, it contains no tobacco, gives off no smoke but instead is a nicotine delivery device that gives off heated water vapor. Some companies are pitching e-cigarettes simply as less harmful alternatives to smoking, saying that smokers who can't quit might be better off "vaping" one of their products. Other companies, though, are selling their e-cigarettes as smoking cessation tools, claims that have not been backed up by any science.
Regardless, the relatively new devices - available online, at truck stops and at mall kiosks like the one where Broustin works - are drawing fire, mostly from groups such as the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, and from scientists who say they fear the products may pose unknown dangers, even if they're not from the known carcinogens in cigarette smoke.
Some have called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban them immediately. The FDA says e-cigarettes are "unapproved drug-device combinations," and, in the past two months, has detained 17 shipments from China at the border and sent them back. "We don't know its safety profile," said spokeswoman Karen Riley.
Despite the recent FDA actions, the industry says more than 100,000 e-cigarettes have been sold in the United States, and the number grows every day.
"Relatively little is known about how they're used, how much nicotine gets into people, what other chemicals are coming along for the ride," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California and a former department chairman at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. "To make a therapeutic claim, you need to do the proper testing."
One selling point of e-cigarettes is that they can be used where smoking is banned - in bars, in restaurants, at the mall. Samet said he thinks people who use them could get even more nicotine than before because they will be able to "light up" in more places. One consequence of smoking bans, he said, has been that more people have quit smoking.
Jack Leadbeater, chief executive officer of NJOY, a Scottsdale, Ariz., e-cigarette maker, is chairman of the E-Cigarette Association. The industry group includes many of those who sell the products, though it doesn't include Smoking Everywhere, the company whose kiosk is at Arundel Mills and other malls. He says his association's members make no claims that their device will help people quit smoking.
"It's really sold just as an alternative to allow current smokers to get nicotine in a manner that's more palatable," he said. "If this was a form of vodka that didn't cause liver damage, would we be having the same sort of problems?"
A starter e-cigarette kit typically goes for about $100. When the user inhales through the cigarette-like tube, a heating element is activated and it vaporizes a nicotine solution stored in the mouthpiece. A red light will glow on the end, simulating the burning of tobacco. The mouthpiece contains about the same amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes and is flavored to taste like tobacco or menthol (though some offer mint, vanilla or other flavors). The nicotine needs to be replenished at an additional charge.
William T. Godschall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, said he finds the debate about e-cigarettes to be counterproductive. He agreed that clinical trials have not been conducted, but he finds it odd that a government that can't seem to regulate cigarettes - which are known to cause cancer - is upset over a much less hazardous product.
"These e-cigarettes are at least 99.9 percent less deadly than cigarettes," he said. "Let's worry about the products that are actually killing people."
Back at the Smoking Everywhere mall kiosk, Broustin is closing in on a sale. He has blown vapor into the air to show James Papanicolas, a 19-year-old mover from Laurel, that it doesn't stink like cigarette smoke. He has explained that his product can actually help reduce nicotine addiction by allowing a smoker to choose less and less concentrated amounts of the drug over time.
Papanicolas' friend, Rose Sanders of Taneytown, isn't sold. The 27-year-old doesn't understand how an e-cigarette could ease her addiction. "It's still going to make you want another cigarette," she said. "If you have this, you're still thinking about smoking."
But Papanicolas planned to buy the e-cigarette. He thinks it will save him money in the long run, since the new filters cost far less than the $6 to $8 he shells out for a pack of Newports.
Will it help him stop smoking? "It might," Papanicolas said. "I know it will help me stop buying cigarettes."