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

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.”

Kerr said she was a lifetime smoker until her brother-in-law gave her an electronic cigarette starter kit in March of last year.

“That was the last cigarette I had,” she said.

Since that time, Kerr said she had given e-cigarette devices to her mother, father and two sisters — all lifelong smokers — and all have now quit cigarettes in favor of vaping.

“I’m still addicted to nicotine and probably will be my whole life, but I love vaping and it’s not hurting me,” Kerr said.

At Vapor Craziness in Riverton, that kind of story seems to repeat itself over and over as customers shop the store.

“Just over a month later, I’m smoke-free,” said Rick Donoho, who started smoking when he was 13 years old.

Tyler Hiatt said electronic cigarettes and vaping got him away from hookah.

“I don’t know where I’d be,” he chuckled.

Worker Travis Worthen started smoking when he was 15. Twenty-seven years later and having tried several other means to stop smoking cigarettes, he finally switched to e-cigarettes.

“I’d given up, thought nothing’s going to help. I’ll just be a smoker the rest of my life. I can’t quit,” he said. “Tried vaping, took me one week and no cigarettes. No desire to go back.”

Store owner Paul Evans, who smoked 12 years before switching to vaping, said the success stories are the reasons why he owns a shop.

“In no means, ways, shapes or forms do I sell this as a cessation device — I sell this as an alternative,” he said.

The alternative, the pro-vaping crowd contends, is safer than carcinogen-filled cigarettes and are much less pricey.

Utah Vapers director Aaron Frazier said a habitual smoker might spend between $300 and $500 a month on cigarettes. Vaping, he said, generally costs less than $50 a month after the initial investment in an e-cigarette.

A reliable, long-lasting device can be obtained complete for $35 to $40, Evans said. Higher-end models can reach into the hundreds of dollars.

Are e-cigs addictive?

When asked if e-cigarettes are addicting, Frazier hedged.

“That’s up for debate,” he said, pointing out several studies were currently pending. Frazier said he personally believes e-cigarettes were no more addicting than caffeine.

At the Odyssey House in Salt Lake City, adolescent substance abuse treatment program director Mike Dulle said e-cigarettes are “clearly addicting” because they contain nicotine.

He raised the prospect that e-cigs in teens’ hands could have the reverse effect some longtime smokers have seen and could become a gateway to cigarettes for younger people.

“Like any other drug out there that you can become dependent on, you’re going to build a tolerance,” Dulle said. “You’re going to want more and more and more.”

Frazier admitted e-cigarettes aren’t “healthy,” but he instead called them “harm-reduction products” and equated them to seat belts in cars, which he said can also be dangerous driving down the road.

While different police officials and lawmakers are hearing the devices can be modified to vape THC oils — essentially liquid marijuana — Frazier said he believes that is happening rarely because it’s complicated.

“The atomizers that are designed for this do not get hot enough to vaporize that type of material,” Frazier said.

Frazier said vapers don’t want to live in a world void of regulation, and he said he supports some legislative aims of Ray, including making all age requirements equal with tobacco products, and creating a licensing and compliance process.

Frazier said he worked with Davis County officials to formulate a regulation policy.

“Part of the regulations that we’ve agreed to with them is that there would be a permitting or licensing requirement, which gives them the authority to go into both retail shops and the manufacturing facilities to inspect them, to make sure that the bottles being sold are accurate, to actually take some liquid, send it off for independent testing to make sure the nicotine contents are what are advertised on the label as well as the ingredients are what are advertised on the label,” Frazier detailed.

“We support it no differently than permitting for a restaurant. It’s a consumable product, it should be.”

The policy is currently in the public comment phase. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 12 at 5:30 p.m. in Clearfield at the Davis County Health Department office.

The Utah Legislature takes up the issue in January.