April 28 2010 12:00 AM

Dale Woodyard markets ’e-cigs’ to smokers

Sitting in a Panera recently, local manufacturer’s rep Dale Woodyard slid what looked like a one-hitter across the table to me. It was an electronic cigarette (e-cigarette, or e-cig), consisting of a short cartridge containing liquid and nicotine that screws into a rechargeable lithium ion battery.

I put it to my lips, inhaled sharply and instantly began coughing out what appeared to be real smoke, tears pouring down my cheeks. The customers around us looked in dumb wonder: Did that guy really just light up in here?

No, he didn’t. That "smoke" was just water vapor, but the feeling in the lungs of a heavy drag felt pretty real (and it had been five years since my last hit, so no laughing).Woodyard sells e-cigs from home, and he says they are one way to get around the whole smokefree thing. They’re made to look just like a cigarette — including an LED light that brightens when you inhale — and smokelessly deliver nicotine through a complex system of batterypowered micro-switches and atomizers.

“Smoking essentially killed both my parents,” says Woodyard, who struggled with quitting smoking himself for years. “If I would have had something like this, I could have quit smoking a lot sooner. I think this is the greatest thing since penicillin.”

Woodyard came across the e-cigarettes on craigslist about seven months ago, and employs guerrilla marketing tactics to get through to smokers.

“If I see people standing outside smoking, I’ll approach them and tell them about these,” he says. “They have a right to smoke, and this device lets them do that whenever and wherever they want.”

Woodyard says that e-cigs are safe for both restaurants and airplanes (which doesn’t mean said institutions will automatically grant approval). There is no smoke, and the water vapor from the nicotine solution dis appears instantly and leaves no lingering odor. The lithium ion battery is rechargeable up to 800 times and the cartridges (which come in a variety of flavors and nicotine levels, from 16 mg to 0 mg) are recyclable. Woodyard says that each cartridge equals about a half a carton of cigarettes, and at $15 apiece, e-cigs are actually less expensive than the real thing.

Nicotine is addictive and does restrict blood vessels, but it has never been linked to causing any disease (it’s the tar and 4,000 additives in cigarettes that do that job). There are arguments about how much nicotine you are actually getting in each puff of an e-cig, and the slight buzz I received could have been attributable to air loss from my coughing jag.

“I’m not trying to get anyone to start smoking using these things,” Woodyard says. “But this is a good transition for anyone who likes to smoke in bars or is trying to quit.”

Plus it makes you the instant center of attention at Panera.