Toby Simon had just dropped off her daughter at Thornton Academy in Saco when she noticed a white Kia Optima wrapped in an advertising banner for SmokeEnds e-cigarettes with the slogan “Your HABIT … Made BETTER.” A tobacco policy specialist, Simon was perturbed by the car’s presence on campus. “I just kind of sat there for a while,” she said. “Then I got out and took a picture.”

An emailed version of that picture made its way to the headmaster’s office and then the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which determined that the 16-year-old driver of the car, which advertised a brand of e-cigarettes being imported and distributed by her family’s business, was not breaking any laws by parking it on campus.

Some boundary had been crossed, though, of both school policy and social protocol. The girl’s mother, Carrie Gorham, the founder of SmokeEnds, agreed that her daughter would park it off campus from now on. But the scenario typifies the gray area around e-cigarettes. In this tale of two mothers, Gorham sees them as the wave of the future and the lesser of two evils. Simon worries they represent another way for the tobacco industry to make a buck on nicotine addicts and find new, younger customers.

E-cigarettes have been available in the American marketplace for about five years and are, as Amber Desrosiers, the tobacco policy coordinator for Maine’s attorney general, puts it, undeniably “up and coming.” Movie star Leonardo DiCaprio has been photographed with one for years. Reported usage doubled between 2010 and 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Annual sales are expected to top $1 billion this year.

But the level of confusion around the battery-operated devices hasn’t dissipated as they’ve moved beyond novelty, in no small part because the Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue regulations for e-cigarettes. The long-term health effects are not yet clear, and neither are the societal aspects of using them. They look like cigarettes and they deliver a hit of nicotine, an alkaloid that raises blood pressure, but should the smoker duck outside a restaurant to use them, or push back from the table and have an e-cigarette with his coffee? In a television ad for Blu, the e-cigarette made by the tobacco company Lorillard, the actor Stephen Dorff promises you can light up a Blu “virtually everywhere.” What he can’t promise, legally, is that they will get you to quit nicotine. But the fact that he can espouse the virtues of e-cigarettes on television, where tobacco ads have been banned for years, is yet another signifier of that gray area.

All this ambiguity is deeply frustrating to Ed Miller, spokesman for the American Lung Association’s Maine chapter. “It’s the wild, wild West out there,” he said.

The lung association’s stance is that smoke-free laws should be applied to e-cigarettes, even if what comes out of them is vapor rather than secondhand smoke. Miller cites a German study that found trace amounts of formaldehyde and benzine in the vapor emissions. But while no one seems to be able to locate any definitive research, more people are discovering the products.

One of the key statistics that fuels Miller and Simon’s concern and the nationwide debate over e-cigarettes is the increase in the number of middle and high school students who say they have tried them. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, between 2011 and 2012 the percentage of kids in grades 6-12 who said they’d used the battery-operated cigarettes increased from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. And e-cigarettes come in such flavors as chocolate, orange, caramel and even, if you hunt for it online, something called Cap’n Crunch Berries.

“The e-cigarette industry is really taking its tactics from the cigarette industry on how it is marketing to the kids,” Miller said. “It’s ripped from Big Tobacco’s playbook.”

THE SALESWOMAN

When it comes to that SmokeEnds car on the Thornton Academy campus, Carrie Gorham would vehemently disagree. Her reasons for letting her daughter drive the car to school had everything to do with convenience, not marketing.

“Are there are companies out there doing that?” she said. “Oh, my God, yes, and we combat them every single day.”

If she were selling regular cigarettes and driving a car wrapped in, say, Marlboro advertisements, she never would have let her child drive it to school. But she feels so good about the business she started three years ago, shortly after throwing her last seven traditional cigarettes into a mud puddle, that she sometimes forgets that others might not feel the same way.

“We are trying to save people,” Gorham said. “I feel that we are making a difference in this world.” She tiptoes around the word “healthy,” careful not to make promises she knows are false. “All I know is this is a far better alternative.”

A former dog groomer, she was spurred to start the Kennebunk-based business by the death of her former mother-in-law. “She died of a massive heart attack at 62 with a cigarette in her mouth,” Gorham said. During that time, when Gorham was heartbroken and disgusted with her own “horrible” habit, her husband, Steve, introduced her to e-cigarettes. She liked one brand but found them hard to find and decided that she wanted to go into the distribution business herself.

Eventually that led to trademarking her own brand and working with a factory in China, where the first e-cigarettes were produced. Now they have several employees, including Carrie’s brother John Graham, and seven cars in the SmokeEnds fleet. Most of them, Gorham points out, are hybrids. She worries about the environment. She cares about cancer victims. She said she raised $500 for a breast cancer patient who needed wigs by selling e-cigarettes with a pink cartridge. Her customers are grateful.

“People are so excited,” she said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air to still smoke but without all the bad crap.”

WAITING FOR THE FDA

While it’s true that e-cigarettes don’t contain tar, they do contain nicotine – otherwise they’d do nothing for the person with the chemical addiction to the tobacco product. A battery in an e-cigarette fires a heating coil, which warms a liquid containing nicotine. When the user inhales, it produces a nicotine vapor.

Demonstrating, Gorham exhales out her nose like a practiced cigarette smoker, but there’s more of a sense of something light passing through the air than an actual smell. She calls it smoking – old habits –but the industry name for what you do with an e-cigarette is “vaping.”

The FDA’s proposed regulations on e-cigarettes were expected in October, but the government shutdown slowed that process, and an FDA spokeswoman said the agency can’t speculate on timing. In September, Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills joined with 39 other state and territorial attorneys general in calling for the FDA to place restrictions on them by classifying them as “tobacco products” under the Tobacco Control Act. This would limit the advertising and marketing of e-cigarettes to youth. No more Stephen Dorff ads.

As the CDC noted in its report on the use of e-cigarettes by people under 18, there are other components in the e-cigarettes, including a component to produce the aerosol, which could be propylene glycol or glycerol. In addition, the CDC report said “potentially harmful constituents also have been documented in some e-cigarette cartridges, including irritants, genotoxins, and animal carcinogens.” These ingredients are untested, and vary from one product to another.

“The consumer has no idea what’s in there,” Miller said.

The flavorings are another factor. For Miller, they are a clear indication that the industry, which produces between 200 and 250 brands, is catering to a youthful market.

Carrie Gorham doesn’t see it that way. As she vaped from an orange-flavored cartridge at a Scarborough restaurant, she said she favors a flavored e-cigarette because her taste buds, damaged from years of smoking regular cigarettes, crave a flavor agent.

Her vaping went unnoticed by a waitress and the rest of the staff, which local restaurateurs say is common.

At Foreplay in Portland, bar manager Jeff Nappi said he’d hardly seen anyone using e-cigarettes in the bar in recent years. There’s one regular who used them for a while, he said, but went outside to do so. At J’s Oyster, a waitress who vapes also goes outside. E-cigarettes have not been a factor at DiMillo’s restaurant, except for one server who uses them in public areas.

“It raises some eyebrows, but in my opinion doesn’t ruffle too many feathers,” owner Johnny DiMillo wrote in an email. “I wouldn’t deter any of our diners from using these devices any more than the occasional obnoxious kid with a beeping and buzzing cell phone or iPad totally disengaged from the rest of their dining group.”

But the lack of direction from the FDA leaves business owners unclear on how to proceed.

“I was wondering what I would say if someone pulled one out at Becky’s,” said Becky Rand, whose Becky’s Diner is a popular waterfront destination. “Don’t they produce a vapor? For people who haven’t heard of them, there are going to be some questions.” Her inclination is to ask e-cigarette users to step outside. But she has sympathy for smokers, “because they are addicted and it is just the way the cigarette companies want them to be,” she said.

She struggled to keep both her smoking customers and her nonsmoking customers happy in the days before Portland eliminated indoor smoking, she said. Being banished outside wasn’t popular with the smokers, but “they are used to being second-class citizens on this issue,” she said.

Gorham would agree with this. “We haven’t been citizens of the United States for 10 years,” she said. And then, once more, over pizza and in public, she vaped.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: mpols@pressherald.com