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Rising popularity of e-cigarettes has educators and lawmakers concerned

Published: Monday, Dec. 9 2013 7:40 p.m. MST

Cool, or corrupting? The popularity of e-cigarettes is rapidly expanding, especially with teens, and marketing efforts appear to be ramping up. It’s something raising concerns from lawmakers, school districts and public health officials.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The popularity of e-cigarettes is rapidly expanding, especially with teens, and marketing efforts appear to only be ramping up.

It’s something that’s raising concerns from lawmakers, school districts, public health officials and parents.

“They’re extremely popular at every school,” said one high school-age teen from Davis County who asked not to be identified because of family differences. “It’s like everywhere I go I’m always hearing about them inside the school, and I know a lot of people, too, who smoke them inside the school.”

The teen said he was first introduced to electronic cigarettes years ago, and he’s been on-and-off with the devices ever since. His favorite flavor is “mango.”

“If I have my e-cigarette that day, I’m probably going to puff on it all day because I can,” he said, noting the device isn’t easily spotted or detected because it is odorless.

Though the teen said he is not addicted, he acknowledged the inherent risk. “Definitely it’s addicting,” he said. “There’s nicotine in these e-cigs, and that’s what people are addicted to in cigarettes."

'Alarming' usage

The numbers show the teen isn’t anywhere close to alone. Statewide survey numbers compiled by the Utah Department of Health’s Tobacco and Prevention Control Program this year showed 5.9 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders regularly use e-cigarettes. That’s more than the 4.6 percent who reported using hookah and the 3.8 percent who acknowledged smoking cigarettes.

However, some areas in Utah saw much higher percentages of teens using e-cigarettes.

Nearly 20 percent of teens surveyed in the Weber-Morgan health district reported using e-cigarettes multiple times in a 30-day period. And 30 percent of Weber-Morgan teens polled said they had “experimented” with e-cigarettes in a 90-day period.

“That was alarming to us, so we decided we wanted to do something about it,” said Weber School District student services coordinator Dave Burt.

The Weber School District is in its first year of a tough new policy against electronic cigarettes, he said. Burt said e-cigarettes are banned like tobacco products in Weber schools. Not only can violating teens potentially be suspended, their cases can get turned over to the juvenile courts as a violation under the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act.

“Right now it’s one of our bigger concerns,” Burt said. “We want to make sure that the kids understand they’re not safe.”

State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, said he plans to introduce legislation that would place limits on marketing, including no Internet sales. Ray said he also wants to institute a licensing and compliance process, and wants all age requirements to be the same as traditional smokers.

“Let’s treat it like we would any other tobacco product and just kind of have a level playing field when it comes to those products,” Ray said.

Saving lives?

Lawmakers, school districts and parents have all raised concerns about e-cigarettes falling into the hands of young people, but former lifetime smokers say the devices have saved their lives.

“Vapers” are standing by the products as Utah legislators look to potentially add new regulations in the 2014 session, while saying they agree with some of the prospective reforms.

“This is going to save my family’s lives and mine,” said Candy Kerr. “That’s how strongly I feel about it.”

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