Frank Franklin II, Associated Press
In this Feb. 20, 2014, File photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York. New York has added electronic cigarettes to its indoor smoking ban, making it illegal to use the devices in bars, restaurants and most workplaces.

If you thought outrageous cigarette ads were left inside your grandparents’ Zenith when it hit the scrap heap, you haven’t been paying attention to the e-cigarette industry.

Take, for example, one video on YouTube. A young man appears at wit’s end while typing on a computer. He slaps his palms on the desk, obviously distracted and devoid of ideas, or maybe unable to find just the right word for that important report.

Then he remembers something. He opens the top desk drawer and finds a Juul e-cigarette. One quick drag and he raises a finger to the sky — the classic “Aha!” moment. He has his word or winning idea or whatever he was missing. The day is saved thanks to nicotine, or whatever else is in the liquid concoction that creates the vapor e-cigarette users inhale.


What in the name of nine-out-of-10-doctors in the ’50s is going on here? And what’s a Juul? Is spellcheck not working?

The answers can be summed up neatly in one sentence: Disruptive technology has hit the cigarette industry.

That doesn’t mean the industry’s tactics have changed much in 60 years, it just means old tobacco industry regulars are being replaced by something more hip and modern, and with a product to smoke that no longer even contains tobacco.

While many of us were sleeping, this has crept into the culture. Only, it has come with one interesting and complicating twist.

Many longtime smokers, including people I know, believe e-cigarettes, because they omit some of the harmful products in traditional cigarettes, offer a way to help them quit — or at least to cut down on the chances of getting some horrible disease.

" The industry’s tactics have changed much in 60 years, it just means old tobacco industry regulars are being replaced by something more hip and modern, and with a product to smoke that no longer even contains tobacco. "

That would be a good thing. But on the other end of the spectrum, experts warn that young people who never have smoked are suddenly puffing away on products they may falsely believe are harmless. E-cigarettes may not contain tobacco leaves, but they do contain nicotine, which is hardly safe, especially for developing adolescents.

In Utah, the state Health Department’s most recent survey, conducted last year, found that 23.1 percent of students in the eighth grade or older had, at one time or another, used an e-cigarette. This compares with 22.3 percent who had tried alcohol and 11.9 percent who had smoked an old-fashioned cigarette.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this. Three years ago, I called on Utah lawmakers and the federal government to take action. The Legislature finally did something earlier this year, passing a bill that requires retailers to get a permit from the state Health Department before being allowed to sell the product. That means greater control over the products and what they contain.

And now the federal Food and Drug Administration is taking action. On Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement that calls the e-cigarette craze an epidemic, a word he says he doesn’t use lightly.

Gottlieb said the FDA is giving Juul Labs, one of the most popular e-cigarette makers, and others who make similar things 60 days to prove they can keep minors from using their products. This came not long after the FDA opened an investigation into Juul’s marketing practices and whether they target teenagers.

Juul vehemently denies the allegations, saying its products are intended solely for adults who already smoke tobacco.

That’s an argument difficult to prove. In Juul’s defense, you don’t have to target teenagers directly to appeal to them. All you have to do is make your product look cool.

But then, not in Juul’s defense, they make a product that many doctors and scientists say isn’t safe.

So, what about the grownup smokers who want to use the product to help quit regular cigarettes?

Gottlieb acknowledged e-cigarettes give them an “important opportunity … to transition off combustible tobacco products.” The FDA plans to regulate nicotine levels in these products so this can be more effective. Juul’s website, incidentally, now emphasizes this as its most important aim.

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But really, when kids’ lives are at stake, should anything else take precedence? If two of every five students in Utah have tried a harmful product, don’t grownups owe it to them to do something? If, as the New York Times reports, more than 2 million kids in middle and high schools nationwide vape regularly, shouldn’t we be alarmed?

Besides, there was something strange about those ads I watched on YouTube. I didn’t see any that portrayed old smokers trying to quit. That wouldn’t be cool.