As electronic cigarettes straddle the line between legal and illegal, Health Canada is trying to find out exactly how many of these devices are being sold.

Ottawa is about to spend up to $230,000 to study how many electronic cigarettes have been sold over the past two years as well as current monthly totals.

Electronic cigarettes are surging in popularity but exist in a legal grey zone. They can be sold if they release vapour but not nicotine. They also cannot be advertised as a healthy alternative to cigarettes.

But the devices can be sold with vapour cartridges that are easily swapped out for nicotine, and demand is booming.

I ve had (customers say) everything from you ve saved my lungs to you ve saved my marriage, said Phil Ralph, employee of the downtown Ottawa retailer e Steam.

The company is two years old but has expanded to 14 locations in Ontario. Buyers can purchase an electronic cigarette kit, starting around $80 and ranging up to hundreds of dollars.

Each device comes with a vapour cartridge. Vials of up to 24 milligrams of nicotine can be bought separately.

Ralph is himself a 12 year smoker who tried and failed several times to quit, but is now onto e cigarettes.

I haven t had a cigarette in over three months. The switch was seamless, he said.

But anti smoking groups have called for tighter restrictions on e cigarettes. The Canadian Lung Association called them gimmicky, unproven methods and urged smokers to use other methods.

The government has mostly followed suit.

To date there is not sufficient evidence that the potential benefits of e cigarettes in helping Canadians to quit smoking outweigh the potential risks, says a statement from Health Canada.

Without scientific evidence, Health Canada continues to advise Canadians against the use of these products.

Ottawa is now paying an outside company to sort out how many smoking cessation aids are being sold.

AC Nielsen of St. Laurent, Que., has been pegged for a $133,000 contract to study retail sales of electronic cigarettes and non pharmaceutical nicotine replacement therapy products.

Health Canada wants to know how many have been sold in the past two years, plus ongoing monthly reports. The contract runs through all of fiscal 2014 2015, but can be renewed for a second year for $100,000.

The office of Health Minister Rona Ambrose isn t saying if the research could be used to craft new legislation.

I don t have any further info for you at this point, said spokesman Michael Bolkenius.

Bolkenius said Health Canada is currently sending out letters to e cigarette vendors to bring them into compliance with the laws.

He said e cigarette manufacturers would need to make the scientific case that the benefits of their products outweigh the harms. He said no companies have so far applied to have their products authorized.

E-cigarettes take off in minnesota — and so does fight over regulating them

Buy cigarettes online, cheap cigarette brands

But the new and booming industry has so far avoided regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a fact that has some worried about any possible unknown harms in the devices. While the FDA is currently drafting recommendations on e cigarettes, some state legislatures have taken matters into their own hands. About 27 states, including Minnesota, ban e cigarettes for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states North Dakota, Utah and New Jersey ban smoking e cigarettes indoors.

Minnesota could soon join the ranks Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL Minneapolis, has introduced a bill to add e cigarettes in the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, legislation she authored in 1975 to ban smoking on public property. In 2007, Minnesota lawmakers amended the act to also prohibit smoking in places of employment, restaurants and bars and in public transportation.

One of the things that s happening, and it s a good reason to do it now, there are businesses that are starting to jump on this, so you want to slow it down before it gets too widespread, Kahn said. We are not banning it, we are just putting on the brakes to say, lets look at this a bit closer.

A step backwards

According to Kahn, another benefit of her bill is it will take pressure off of local governments. So far the battle over what to do with e cigarettes has been waged on the local level. More than two dozen Minnesota cities and counties have implemented restrictions on e cigarette use in public places.

The latest city join the list is Mankato, where the City Council recently voted nearly unanimously to ban electronic cigarettes in most indoor places in the city. Hennepin County has banned smoking e cigs on county property, and Metro Transit has banned e cigarettes on all buses and trains. And there s no so called vaping allowed at Target Field, either.

Another proposal introduced this year by Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL Eagan, would make selling e cigarettes to minors a misdemeanor, give local governments more power to regulate the devices and ban their use on public school campuses.

A major concern among skeptics is that e cigarettes sold in flavors like strawberry and bubblegum are being marketed to children and could become a pathway to cigarettes. New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found use of e cigarettes among middle and high school student went from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. That has alarmed public health officials.

The Minnesota Department of Health is not working on any state level policies to regulate e cigarettes, but officials have supported local bans like in Duluth and support efforts currently introduced in the Legislature. Smoking cessation groups, like Clearway Minnesota, are against the use of e cigarettes.

We don t feel like anyone should be exposed to the vapor until we know what s in it, said Clearway spokesman Mike Sheldon. What we are looking at, if we are talking about allowing a substance with unknown harm into our air, that would be a step backwards.

Better than tobacco?

But what exactly is in the so called e juice used in the devices? Nicotine is the key functioning ingredient, although e cigarettes allow users to adjust the level of nicotine they inhale all the way down to none at all. The other main ingredients are fairly common propylene glycol, which creates the vapor seen, and glycerine, which is used in many foods as a means of preservation.

While hundreds of studies have been conducted on e cigarettes, there s no evidence the devices cause cancer. In fact, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy found them to be much safer than tobacco cigarettes and comparable in toxicity to conventional nicotine replacement products like nicotine patches and gum.

But other possible harmful impacts are murkier. Dorothy Hatsukami, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the University of Minnesota s Masonic Cancer Center, wants to help answer some of the lingering questions. She is leading a study examining exactly what smokers inhale when they use e cigarettes and how toxic it is compared to regular cigarettes. Researchers are working with smokers who use only e cigarettes, as well as those who use them alongside traditional cigarettes.

There have been a lot of studies done on e cigarettes, but not many have been done on the exposure of the individual themselves over a period of time, she said. There s such a wide variety of e cigarettes out on the market and some may have some unknown contaminants. Even though studies have shown there may be minimal amounts of chemicals from the vapor that s released, there s no guarantee.

E cigarette smokers head to St. Paul

But proposals to regulate their use would make Minnesota one of the toughest states on the growing industry. Oregon currently has the toughest restrictions, effectively banning the sale of two major e cigarette brands in the state until they are FDA approved or scientific research can prove them safe.

Minnesota already imposes some regulations on e cigarettes. For instance, Minnesota is the first state to label e cigarettes as an other tobacco product. That means they can tax the devices Minnesota uses an excise tax of 95 percent slapped on the wholesale cost of the product and put that revenue directly in the state s coffers. Minnesota generated about $27 million from excise taxes on other tobacco products in 2013. Minnesota also bans the sale of e cigarettes to minors.

Matt Black will be taking the e cigarette consumer argument to the Capitol next session on behalf of the Minnesota Vapers Advocacy group and the Minnesota League of Vape Shops, a trade industry group that represents about 50 storeowners. Since officially forming last August, the group has been battling on the local level.

Black, a former smoker who quit by using e cigarettes, says it should be up to the individual bar or restaurant owner if they want to allow e cigarettes in their facility. In the case of Duluth, which recently adopted restrictions on e cigarettes, users are not even allowed to use the devices in e cigarette shops.

It doesn t make sense to ban something or regulate something to death if there is no science giving you a reason to do so, Black said. But for many the impulse is, if it looks like smoke it must be smoke.

What s more, Black says it doesn t make sense to ban a product that has helped many people quit smoking. I don t think anyone realizes the faces behind this movement. It s people who want to quit smoking, Black said. They are not going out to get kids. We are fighting hard and it s all because we ve tried everything and nothing has worked until this. We don t want to see that taken away from others.

Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL Virginia, is an e cigarette user. He plans to vote against Kahn s proposal if it comes before him for a vote. The bill s first stop is in the Health and Human Services Policy Committee, in which the chairwoman, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL Rochester, is a co author.

I ve been struggling every year to quit as a New Year s resolution. I ve found e cigarettes more helpful than anything I ve tried. At the end of the day there are no studies out there that say this is a harmful substance, said Metsa. I would want to make sure it s as readily available as long as it s not putting other people in harms way.