Efforts made in area to restrict product use to people 18 years and older
CORINTH — The 16-year-old puts the mechanical device into his mouth, inhaling the flavored e-liquid in the chamber of his personalized vaporizer or “vape pen.”
He releases a thick cloud of vapor that resembles smoke and hands the titanium-plated vape pen to a friend, who, in turn, takes several short puffs before passing it to another friend standing in a small circle of friends in an empty parking lot near their high school.
“It just tastes good, sweet,” one of them says, exhaling another cloud that smells like a scented candle. “And you can modify the ‘mods.’”
The “mod” or personalized vaporizer is an upgradable mechanical device with interchangeable parts and chambers to maximize the experience of smoking flavored e-juice, many types of which contain nicotine. It’s just one of the many aspects of the electronic cigarette trend that high school students find appealing.
In fact, the e-cigarette trend is so appealing that last year school officials in Corinth confiscated e-cigarette products almost on a daily basis, according to Melaynee Broadstreet, director of communications for the Lake Dallas school district.
Assistant principals reported that students felt “vaping” (inhaling the e-liquid) was “new” and “cool.” It was a “fad,” students reported. School officials felt the fad was pertinent enough to add e-cigarette products to a list of prohibited items in the 2014-15 student and faculty handbooks.
Corinth city officials took it one step further and, on Aug. 7, passed an amendment to the city’s smoking ordinance, making it unlawful for any person younger than 18 years old to possess, purchase, consume or accept an e-cigarette or liquid nicotine.
Many other cities across Texas are taking it upon themselves to regulate e-cigarette sales to minors, too. Abilene, Bedford, Burleson, Cedar Park, College Station, Frisco, Georgetown and Rockwall have all banned the sale of e-cigarettes to consumers younger than 18.
Forty-one states currently have legislation preventing the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Texas is not one of those states, but some representatives hope to change that stance and introduce a bill that prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in the next legislative session.
“[An e-cigarette] seems harmless, but it’s addictive,” said state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton. “Nicotine is a tobacco product.”
The Food and Drug Administration agrees. The agency tried to regulate e-cigarettes as an unapproved drug/device combination between 2008 and 2010, but companies such as Sottera Inc. and other manufactures quickly sued, halting the federal agency’s efforts.
In Sottera Inc. vs. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that e-cigarettes could be regulated as “tobacco products” under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
“The tobacco product marketplace is evolving at a dizzying pace with many unanswered questions about the health effects of novel products,” Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, wrote in a 2014 FDA blog post. “Especially in the shadow of alarming increases in the number of youths using unregulated products like electronic cigarettes and cigars, it’s more crucial than ever to help prevent early tobacco use that could lead to a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”
In April, the FDA proposed regulations that could impose a costly registration and approval process on e-cigarette products formulated after 2007, which some e-cigarette advocates fear would eliminate many vape shops from creating their own house blends, which sometimes includes dozens of ingredient combinations, in the back of their shops.
The FDA is also proposing an age restriction similar to tobacco products, which require a minimum age of 18 to purchase, according to Jennifer Haliski, a spokeswoman for the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health Department.
E-cigarette advocates claim the FDA’s proposed regulations are signaling a possible future ban on a variety of popular flavorings, which many students find appealing, according to a press release by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association.
“We are not a tobacco product,” said Julie Woessner, president of the association, “and we are not claiming e-cigarettes are safe. There is nothing that is really truly safe. We are claiming it is 99 percent less hazardous than conventional cigarettes.”
An e-cigarette mimics the effect of smoking without burning tobacco. A battery powers the device that resembles a cigarette, vaporizing an “e-juice” mixture, one part propylene glycol (or vegetable glycol) and another part liquid nicotine.
This liquid nicotine is extracted from tobacco plants.
Since it doesn’t burn tobacco, e-cigarettes were marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes and a product people can “smoke” in places with smoke-free indoor air policies or laws. The products first appeared in China in 2004, arriving on U.S. shores in 2007.
Personalized vaporizers followed not long after e-cigarettes’ arrival, offering consumers a new way to enjoy vaping by using a pre-filled flavored cartridge or a vial of e-liquid that the customer then drips on a wick located inside the vape pen.
Mom-and-pop vape shops offering house-blend juices appeared seemingly overnight in North Texas.
In an eight-week period, eight to 10 shops opened their doors in Richardson, while in Denton County, more than a dozen currently operate, blending e-liquid in backrooms, in some cases without proper clean-room requirements.
The number of online shops offering e-cigarette products has also increased with more than 450 brands and over 7,700 unique flavors available to purchase. Analysts at Wells Fargo estimate e-cigarette sales will surpass traditional tobacco, according to recent report by Accesswire.com.
Analysts expect e-cigarettes to be a $10 billion industry by 2017.
A majority of the e-cigarette industry regulates itself with signs proclaiming minors are not allowed inside vape shops, and most e-cigarette retailers don’t sell to minors. In Denton, shops such as Vaporesence have signs prohibiting minors from vaping on the premises or purchasing e-cigarette products.
Yet, despite this self regulation, underage teenagers are still obtaining e-cigarettes.
“It’s this generation’s cigarettes,” said one shop owner in Denton, who wished to remain anonymous.
Current research suggests the e-cigarette trend among high school students is quickly becoming an epidemic.
“The Impact of Electronic Cigarettes on the Pediatric Population” is the first paper to provide a summary of available data on the impact of e-cigarettes on children. Researchers evaluated data compiled in the 2011 and 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey as well as four other databases.
Researchers found e-cigarette use doubled among students at high schools and middle schools across the nation. More than 1.78 million U.S. students reported using an e-cigarette in 2012, according to the study.
“Data from one U.S. state,” wrote researchers, “identified that youth are more likely to report current e-cigarette use than current use of any other tobacco or nicotine-containing product.”
Researchers reported data from another high school suggested students use e-cigarettes because they can be “smoked quickly,” a quick puff, exhale and the vapor evaporates, leaving just a faint scent behind. E-cigarettes and personalized vaporizers were also “easy to conceal,” especially in a backpack.
Greg Wilkerson, the chief of police in Corinth, said the city has seen an increase in the number of teenagers using e-cigarette products, despite vape shops taking it upon themselves to ban the sale of these items to minors.
“With recent FDA studies talking about [e-cigarettes] being unsafe, coupled with other types of oils illegitimately, there was a concern that the school district couldn’t contain it on the administration end,” Wilkerson said.
But it’s not just the FDA making this claim.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Veterans Administration, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization have all expressed concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes, recommending that they not be used for tobacco cessation.
“Nicotine is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs in the U.S.,” stated an article in Psychology Today. The drug activates the circuitry regulating the feelings of pleasure, and it also increases the levels of dopamine and causes feelings of withdrawal.
Opponents of e-cigarettes claim since nicotine is addictive, e-cigarettes act as a “gateway drug,” while proponents reiterate that e-cigarettes have helped millions of people quit smoking.
“Obviously, it would be best if smokers could quit completely,” Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, told WebMD.com. “But if that’s not possible, I think they’d be a lot better off with e-cigarettes. They’re a safer alternative.”
Yet, liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes is considered toxic by Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System.
“This is one of the most potent, naturally occurring toxins we have,” Cantrell, also a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, told The New York Times in March.
The National Poison Data System reported the number of cases linked to e-liquid poisoning increased by 300 percent in 2013 compared to 2012, and the number of people referred to hospitals tripled from the previous year.
A number of parents in Corinth were worried about health effects of e-cigarette products and contacted City Council members, who then asked city staff to research the products, Wilkerson said.
Police officials reached out to the school district and learned of the e-cigarette epidemic that school officials faced last year.
“They’d been confiscating them,” he said. “But with no real criminal law in place, it was hard to enforce.”
Corinth’s amended ordinance allows officers to issue a citation not to exceed $500 to underage offenders who are caught possessing e-cigarettes.
“Our hope is that we receive a voluntary compliance,” Wilkerson said.
CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and on Twitter at @writerontheedge.