E-cigarettes raise concerns from Idaho officials

E-cigarettes raise concerns from Idaho officials
Teri West poses for a photo while using an e-cigarette on Thursday Oct. 27, 2011 in Twin Falls, Idaho. This isn't a futuristic prop from the set of “The Jetsons.” It's an electronic cigarette and it's been on the market for several years. But the e-smokes are just now catching the eyes of community and health leaders. Across the country, health warnings and bans are being raised regarding the devices, even though little is known about how often they're used or who is using them. AP Photo/Times-News, Ashley Smith)
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Smoking for the modern age never looked so easy. It just requires a push of a button, vaporized mist and optional flavors of chocolate, coffee or peppermint.

This isn't a futuristic prop from the set of "The Jetsons." It's an electronic cigarette and it's been on the market for several years. But the e-smokes are just now catching the eyes of community and health leaders. Across the country, health warnings and bans are being raised regarding the devices, even though little is known about how often they're used or who is using them.

"It's a tobacco product but it's being marketed like a candy cigarette," said Rene LeBlanc, director for the South Central Public Health District. "It's mimicking the same smoking behavior but you're being told it's not the same."

E-cigarettes look like a normal cigarette, cigar or pipe. However, the product is divided into three sections. A cartridge contains a liquid nicotine solution and acts as the mouthpiece for inhaling. An atomizer attaches to the cartridge and creates vapor. The rest of the product is the slim tubular piece containing the battery and LED light that comes on during inhalation.

Instead of smoke from burning tobacco, e-cigarette users breathe in water vapor imbued with nicotine, which enters their blood stream through the lungs.

The cost varies depending on the brand of e-cigarettes. Start-up packs that contain the device and a few cartridges can range from $30 to $120. Cartridge replacements can be purchased online or at stores and usually last up to 100-150 puffs.

Idaho lawmakers and health officials are currently looking to ban minors from being able to purchase e-cigarettes, and a proposal could be introduced in the coming state legislative session. Unlike tobacco products, individuals under 18 years old can legally purchase e-cigarettes in all but six states across the nation.

Coeur d'Alene is pushing for its own municipal ban on the devices for minors and e-cigarette use in public spaces within its boundaries.

Current lax regulation has raised concern that the devices will attract younger people to smoke. The electronic devices only face two federal restrictions. In September, the Department of Transportation announced it was no longer allowing passengers to use them on airplanes. Last summer, the Air Force prohibited the use of e-cigarettes in its workplaces and non-smoking public spaces.

According to LeBlanc, the biggest health risks facing Idaho at the moment are obesity and smoking. But he's not sure how many minors in the area are using e-cigarettes.

The American Lung Association reports that close to 14.5 percent of Idaho high school students smoke some form of tobacco, slightly below the national average. While the ALA has had a heavy hand pushing for a ban in north Idaho, they have not tracked how many minors are using the e-cigarettes in any state or in the nation, said Carrie Nyssen, spokeswoman for the health advocacy group.

However, the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimates that there are close 1.5 million Americans using e-cigarettes, said Tom Kiklas, co-founder of the advocacy group.

While Kiklas says e-smoke users are rising, the amount is still much lower than the total of those who smoke traditional cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 46 million Americans who smoke cigarettes.

According to school administrators and store owners, the focus on banning minors' use of the devices may be misplaced.

School districts across the Magic Valley haven't seen any reports of students smoking e-cigarettes on their campuses, nor have local schools updated their discipline manuals to include banning e-cigarettes. At this point, e-cigarettes are treated the same as any other type of tobacco product, said Scott Rogers, superintendent for the Minidoka County School District.

"We haven't had any incidents where it was reported," he said. "I'm not saying we won't ever have to look at it. Policies are constantly in the works, so possibly next year we might be updating our manual."

While schools are hardly the only place minors go to smoke, the SCPHD youth smoking cessation program hasn't seen that many participants dabble in electronic smoking.

"In my classes, I've heard some of my kids talk about using them before," said Elvia Caldera, health education specialist for the SCPHD. "But none of them talked about liking it. Real cigarettes are still cool to kids and so they just go for those."

In many convenience stores in southern Idaho, e-cigarettes are sold behind the counter with the rest of the tobacco products and require ID for purchase.

Ashley Wilson, a cashier at Twin Stop in Twin Falls, said e-cigarettes are gaining popularity but store policy prohibits her from selling them to minors.

"I haven't had any teenagers want to purchase them. Mainly, middle-aged customers are purchasing them," she said.

Twin Falls resident Terry West picked up e-cigarettes four months ago. He and his wife, Natalie, were looking for a cheaper alternative to normal cigarettes.

"I did and didn't like e-cigarettes," West said. "I liked that they were cleaner; no ash and smoke. I liked that I could smoke anywhere, even at work."

But he missed the feel of real smoke and the "throat hit" of the first drag of a real cigarette. He eventually went back to real cigarettes because he was tired of ordering cartridges online. He says if his brand of e-cigarettes becomes more available in this area, he might go back.

Allen Nagel, e-cigarette user and owner of the Smoke-N-Head smoke shop in Twin Falls, also sell his products to an older crowd.

"They don't work for everybody but they will work for a lot of people looking for a healthier option," he said.

Nagel argues that e-cigarettes are healthier than the traditional alternative. He's been using them to wean himself off smoking because he's concerned about his health. E-cigarettes don't contain tar, tobacco or other poisons that regular cigarettes do, he said.

However, a Food and Drug Administration report analyzing e-cigarettes detected traces of the same chemical found in anti-freeze. The report also showed that the devices emit varying amounts of nicotine in each puff, sometimes double the amount of a traditional cigarette.

Nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco products, is the most common cause of chemical dependency in the U.S., according to the CDC.

For now, health officials are gathering support for a statewide ban on e-cigarettes for minors. A resolution is being sponsored by legislators from north Idaho. State Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley — a retired physician and member of the House Health and Welfare Committee — hadn't heard about the resolution when contacted by the Times-News but said he would look forward to reading it over. Republicans from Coeur d'Alene, Rep. Bob Nonini and Sen. James Hammond, have both signed on to sponsor the resolution.

"Idaho wants to follow in the footsteps of other states that are stepping up to regulate these products," LeBlanc said. "An all-out ban is a whole other mess, but we can get people on board to stop minors from purchasing these things."

___

Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com