e-cig smoker
© Christopher Berkey/NYT
Logan Smith with his e-cig
As city governments and schools across the country move to ban or restrict the use of electronic cigarettes, one place increasingly welcomes the devices: the rural county jail.

Though traditional cigarettes are prohibited from most prisons and jails because of fire hazards and secondhand smoke, a growing number of sheriffs say they are selling e-cigarettes to inmates to help control the mood swings of those in need of a smoke, as well as address budget shortfalls, which in some jails have meant that guards are earning little more than fast-food workers.

Inmates are addicted to cigarettes and pay what the market bears to get their fix. Prisons and jails earn a little extra money to pay their guards and provide a safer environment for inmates. Everybody wins. It is obviously not a utopia, but this system logically seems to be one where everyone is relatively content with the outcome.

The trend stands in contrast to restrictions on e-cigarettes approved in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other big cities. County jails in at least seven states have permitted the sale of a limited selection of flavors of e-cigarettes to inmates. They have quickly become one of the most sought-after items in jail commissaries. And although federal prisons ban e-cigarettes, the inmate market has so much potential that Chinese and American manufacturers now produce "jail-safe" versions made of plastic instead of metal.

sheriff mark gammons
© Christopher Berkey/NYT
Sheriff Mark Gammons of Macon County, Tenn., said that depending on sales, he hoped to collect between $20,000 and $50,000 from e-cigarettes this budget year
In Gage County, in southeastern Nebraska, Sheriff Millard Gustafson said that he had sold out of the 200 e-cigarettes bought in December for the 32-prisoner jail, but that more would be arriving soon. "They've been selling like hot cakes," he said. "I look at this as something to control their moods. And so if they're not a good boy or girl, I'm going to take them away, just like I do with the TVs."

Electronic cigarettes, most of which contain nicotine but not the harmful tars found in traditional cigarettes, are sold to prisoners for $8 to $30 each, depending on the number of puffs they deliver. Some jails earn profits of more than 400 percent for each e-cigarette - money that goes either to the county's general fund or directly into the jail budget.

Mark Gammons, sheriff of Macon County, Tenn., said he had introduced e-cigarettes to create an additional revenue stream for the jail after successive years of budget cuts and a grim funding outlook.

He said that at least half of the jail's 150 inmates were smokers and that many had turned to e-cigarettes.

Sheriff Gammons said that he had taken pains not to encourage smoking among inmates, but that the jail commissary had still sold about 1,100 e-cigarettes since they were first offered five months ago. He said his priority is to win a pay raise for his overworked guards, who earn a top salary of $10.58 an hour - which after taxes typically amounts to less than the state's $7.35 an hour minimum wage, the guards say.

The jail buys each e-cigarette for $2.75 and sells it for $10. An e-cigarette at the jail - either a Marlboro-style flavor or a menthol version - is good for about 500 puffs, which is the equivalent of about three and a half packs of regular cigarettes, jail officials and inmates say.

Mr. Gammons said that depending on sales, he hoped to collect between $20,000 and $50,000 from e-cigarettes this budget year.

"I just want my boys to make as much as they can," he said, even if it is only an additional $1 an hour.

Behind the scenes, e-cigarette distributors have been lobbying local officials at state sheriffs' association meetings, and dropping by penitentiaries and leaving behind samples.

Precision Vapor, based in Lexington, Ky., says on its website that it is "at the forefront of the introduction of electronic cigarettes to the prisons and continues to expand into all 50 states." Its sales pitch concludes: "Providing revenue to the jail. Where it belongs."

Electronic cigarettes, powered by a battery, heat a liquid solution to create a vapor that users inhale. The most popular flavors contain nicotine, but there are also nicotine-free varieties.

E-cigarette makers say their product is safer than regular cigarettes because there is no combustion, which means that byproducts of that process - including tars and carbon monoxide - are absent. But whether they are safe or help reduce dependence on regular cigarettes remains unclear.

In September, 40 state attorneys general sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration urging it to regulate e-cigarettes in the same manner as tobacco products. The F.D.A. is expected to soon set marketing and product rules on the devices.

Despite the unanswered questions, the use of e-cigarettes has increased significantly in the past three years. There are now more than 350 varieties and global sales have reached nearly $2 billion,according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group.

County sheriffs say the most significant benefit for them has been a reduction in violence and tension in jails, which are often overcrowded and where minor disagreements can quickly escalate into fights, endangering the safety of guards.

"When these guys get in here they're wound up anyway, and then you tell them they're not getting cigarettes, and it's on," said Jason Armstrong, who runs inmate accounts at the Greene County Detention Center in eastern Tennessee, which began selling e-cigarettes in September. "Now, they're pretty much getting their nicotine fix, so it's cut down on altercations."

Mr. Armstrong, who said that "pretty much everyone" at the jail used to smoke, said they had nearly sold out of the 1,500 devices bought for the facility's 350 inmates. "It's been tremendous," he said.

In Nebraska, Sheriff Gustafson said the influence that e-cigarettes exert over inmates has been instrumental in maintaining good order. "The thing I like about it is it controls the guy," he said. "We had four or five fights last week. One guy who'd had a fight asked for an e-cigarette and it calmed him down. It's not meant to help inmates, it's meant to help my guys."

Logan Smith, 32, an inmate at the Macon County jail in Tennessee, said that before his arrest he had been a two-pack a day smoker. Jail, he said, put him "on edge," but smoking a single e-cigarette each week helped soothe him.

"I'd get withdrawals from nicotine, but I didn't want to try them at first because I didn't think they'd help," he said. "But it takes the nicotine edge off."

Byron Satterfield, Macon County's chief deputy sheriff, said that because the introduction of e-cigarettes had led to fewer inmate fights, there had also been a reduction in trips to the hospital.

"The cost of fixing a broken nose is $2,000," he said, "so I figure we're saving the county some money."