Stacey Hess was born in the heart of the tobacco industry, and tried her first cigarette when she was attending grade school. "It's kind of what you did in the South, when you're 13 years old. I think things are a little different down here.” For the next 20 years, she couldn't kick the habit: "I tried the gum, I tried the patches, I've tried the lozenges, and none of that stuff worked." What ultimately did work was vaping.
"I immediately realized I was feeling better," Hess said. "I could breathe better. It doesn't take long for your lungs to kind of heal themselves."
Reporter asked, "Did you feel like there were changes going in your lungs?"
"I did," she replied. "I wasn't coughing when I woke up in the morning any more. That was a big thing. I think a lot of smokers go through that: They cough as soon as they wake up. I wasn't doing that any more, and I haven't done that since."
Hess is now hoping to share that feeling and, she's convinced, help save lives, as a volunteer for an advocacy group called the Louisiana Smoke-Free Association.
But e-cigarettes are winning over more than just former smokers. In fact, they are gaining cautious support from a growing number of public health experts. In June no less than the American Cancer Society noted that while the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are "not known," they are "markedly less harmful" than traditional smoking.
"Nicotine's not. It's all the components of combustion. Nicotine's not a completely benign compound – it has side effects. But the cause of cancer, and the carcinogens in tobacco, are the products of the combustion."
In other words, it's not the nicotine that will kill you, it's the smoke. But Gottlieb and others are quick to point out that what may be a helpful for adults looking to quit is also enticing to teenagers.
"What I've learned, not only in the tobacco industry but also taking on the sugary beverage industry, is that they also falsify data. And so that's what's most alarming. If the FDA's going to really be studying this, I want independent, pure, empirical research and data to drive this policy conversation."
But walk into a vape shop anywhere in the country, and you see another side of the industry. About half of the vape market is still made up of small businesses mostly staffed and owned by former smokers like Steve Nair and his wife, Brandy.
The FDA is still reviewing the impact of vaping, and figuring out how to regulate the entire world of smoke-free tobacco products, a process that is expected to take years.
People like Stacey Hess, though, aren't waiting. She's now trying to convince her father – a smoker for 40 years – to try vaping ("It's not for me," he laughed), while also enjoying what she says are the benefits of a smoke-free life.
Like father, not quite like daughter: Stacey Hess swears by vaping, but her dad is sticking with traditional cigarettes.
Hess said, "I wish I had never started smoking to begin with."
The reporter asked, "How's your health?"
"My health is improved. I actually went to Denver last month. And, you know, the elevation is a little different up there, and I actually did a hike and I wasn't winded. And I was like, man! There was no way I could have done this before!"