SALT LAKE CITY — Every adult who dies from smoking-related illnesses is replaced by two kids who pick up the habit, according to a new report from the U.S. surgeon general, which identifies consequences of tobacco use.
One Utah lawmaker is blaming electronic cigarettes — spiked with popular flavors such as Cap'n Crunch, banana split, Hawaiian Punch, bubble gum, chocolate milkshake and more — for addicting kids to the real thing later in life.
"The industry says it's not marketing to kids, but then it offers flavors like this," Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Thursday during a gathering of public health stakeholders at the state Capitol.
Ray announced legislation he is sponsoring in the upcoming session that would regulate the e-cigarette industry in Utah. He wants to prohibit sale to minors, as well as require vendors to obtain a license to operate, which paves the way for random inspections by the state's health department.
"The reason I'm so passionate about this is because I've had to suffer at the hands of tobacco companies my whole life," Ray said. His parents were both heavy smokers and Ray was born with a congenital heart defect as a result.
Ray said he has endured four open-heart surgeries due to complications with his condition and will spend the rest of his life "fighting for this cause because I've had to live through the results of somebody else's choices all this time."
He and other lawmakers have increased the cigarette tax in Utah multiple times, and last year, Ray sponsored similar legislation to regulate the e-cigarette industry, although it did not pass.
Ray said this year is different.
"I give you my personal guarantee that this law will pass and it will serve as a precedent for the rest of the nation," he said. He wants to put a stop to kids' access to what he believes is a harmful nicotine habit.
Beverly May, the western region director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said she believes tobacco use is the state's biggest public health concern.
While Utah has the lowest tobacco use rate in the nation, May said smoking is still the leading preventable cause of death.
"When we talk about deaths of people from smoking, it's not just numbers. We're talking about families, we're talking about friends, we're talking about parents and we're also talking about health care costs to the community," she said. "Ultimately what we want to do is eliminate death and disease caused by tobacco."
Nationally, May said, 3,000 kids try smoking for the first time every day and 90 percent of those become permanent smokers. She says that with the number of new children starting smoking, "it's a pediatric epidemic."
"The new threat is e-cigarettes," Ray said.
The Utah Poison Control Center, located at the University of Utah's College of Pharmacy, fielded at least 62 calls last year for exposure to electronic cigarette devices and liquid cartridges. It was more than quadruple the calls regarding the same subject a year earlier, and 10 times greater than calls received in 2011.
In Utah, the percentage of e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2011 to 2013, but use rates are higher in certain areas of the state. The most recent surveys indicate that 5.9 percent report using the devices daily, according to Adam Bramwell, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
He said the effects of e-cigarettes remain unknown and there are no restrictions on the manufacturing, labeling, advertising and sale of the products, which makes them "a top concern."
And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a statement saying that e-cigarette use is "condemning many kids to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine."
Ray's proposed legislation plans to address the concerns of kids using electronic cigarettes, and potentially decrease smoking rates in the state, he said. He wants other concerned Utahns to contact their local representatives about the issue.
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