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Statesman Journal: E-cigarettes: It's like the Wild West

Nate Little, 30, has been smoking since he was 17 and has tried many times to quit. Nothing worked, he says.

He was smoking two packs a day. That’s a costly habit — both in terms of finances and his health.

Six months ago, the Keizer resident landed on a compromise: electronic cigarettes. Now, he would never go back to tobacco cigarettes, he says.

He spends $20 on a bottle of liquid nicotine-flavor mix, instead of $140 on cigarette packs, every two weeks. He smells better and breathes better, Little said.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that allow users to inhale vaporized nicotine, flavors and other chemicals. The flavors range from tobacco to pin~a colada. They’re different from traditional cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco and tar, and there is no burning involved. The device heats up the liquid nicotine mixture, or e-juice, converting it into vapor.

Another major difference is that e-cigarettes are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the laws in place regulating tobacco do not apply to e-cigarettes. This includes TV advertising restrictions, sales restrictions to minors and use restrictions in public places. The FDA in fall of 2013 proposed a rule that would expand its oversight on tobacco products to include e-cigarettes.

Some states and municipalities have begun regulating e-cigarettes, and Oregon may soon join the ranks.

Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, has a draft bill in hand that he’s planning to introduce in the February legislative session. It would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors — a boundary on which industry leaders, users and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be able to easily agree.

“This is a common-sense bill,” Olson said in an interview, noting that e-cigarette retailers already have been practicing the no-minors policy. “It’s not going to be a battle out there.”

So far, at least 27 states have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

`The Wild West’

A barrier to policy making on e-cigarettes is the lack of scientific knowledge on the products. Long-term health effects of the products both to the users and others in the environment are not yet known.

On Friday, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on smoking, commemorating the first report 50 years ago that warned the public of the dangers of smoking. It called for research and regulations on e-cigarettes, as well as other new nicotine-based products being introduced to the market.

The American Lung Association says because e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they are a known health hazard.

“(Nicotine) can have impact on the cardiovascular system as well as youths in terms of brain development,” said Erika Sward, vice president for national advocacy, in a phone interview.

Sward added that there are preliminary studies that show the e-cigarette vapors contain ingredients that cause cell changes in the lung. While science is still early in this arena, that could indicate lung cancer, Sward said. Second-hand e-cigarette emissions could also be a health concern for those in the vicinity of users, Sward said, although industry leaders and users maintain that the vapors are safe.

The FDA in 2009 analyzed 18 e-cigarette cartridges and found carcinogens in half of the samples, including a toxic chemical used in antifreeze.

With more than 250 brands of e-cigarettes on the market, Sward added, there’s no way of knowing the true ingredients of each product or ensuring consistency with no oversight from the FDA.

The Oregon Health Authority also reported that from 2011 to 2013, the Oregon Poison Center received 31 calls related to unintended exposure or over-exposure to nicotine from e-cigarettes.

Besides, Sward said, with no regulations, e-cigarette companies are using the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry in the 1970s. They include celebrity endorsements, glamorization of smoking, candy and fruit flavors and urging smokers to switch to e-cigarettes rather than quit with unvalidated health claims, she said.

Recently, members of Congress accused the Golden Globes of glamorizing e-cigarettes. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of the HBO show “Veep,” was shown during a skit wearing sunglasses and acting aloof as she puffed an e-cigarette.

“It is literally the Wild West when it comes to e-cigarettes,” Sward said. “Anything goes and there’s no sheriff in town.”

Protecting youths

Community leaders are concerned that with flavors such as chocolate cherry, Red Bull, juicy peach and mango, e-cigarettes are hooking youths into nicotine addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that the percentage of American middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.

The National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 10 percent of high school students reported having used e-cigarettes in 2012, compared with 4.7 percent in 2011.

In Oregon, current e-cigarette use among 11th graders rose to 5 percent in 2013, from 2 percent in 2011, according to the Oregon Health Authority. More than half of e-cigarette users in middle and high school also reported they don’t smoke conventional cigarettes.

People in the business say they are careful not to market to minors.

R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., which owns VUSE Digital Vapor Cigarettes, contracts with retailers to only display its e-cigarettes behind counters and to sell only to adults, spokesman David Howard said in a phone interview.

T-Zone, a head shop in downtown Salem, also doesn’t sell its e-cigarette products to minors, manager Jeremy Vonklootwyk said. The owner of the e-cigarette kiosk Elite Smoke Station at Salem Center Mall declined to be interviewed.

“We don’t condone any of our products being used by minors,” Vonklootwyk said.

However, the Oregon Health Authority cited in a recent report about e-cigarettes that age restrictions may not be enough. In Utah, e-cigarette use continues to rise among kids, despite a sale restriction that went into effect in 2010.

More regulations

Currently, there are no state restrictions in Oregon on where an e-cigarette can be used. Unlike tobacco cigarettes, people can use e-cigarettes in bars, malls and around schools, although some local governments and institutions are starting to set boundaries.

Polk County passed an ordinance banning the use of e-cigarettes in county buildings in December. Also in December, the city of Corvallis banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and included e-cigarettes in its smoking restrictions. This means e-cigarettes cannot be used in indoor workplaces, public places and parks, according to the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

Salem Health updated its smoke-free campus policy to include e-cigarettes. It went into effect Jan. 6.

Rep. Olson said while it’s possible an amendment also restricting the use of e-cigarettes in certain places could come up during the course of his bill’s path, the first priority is to make sure the state bans selling them to minors.

Howard, of R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., said because e-cigarettes work differently, they should not be placed under the same use restrictions as tobacco cigarettes. Businesses should decide for themselves whether they want to allow people to use e-cigarettes on their property, he said.

Sward, from the American Lung Association, said her organization supports policies such as the one Corvallis passed, because they protect the public from potential health hazards of e-cigarettes and promotes quitting.

“What we know needs to happen is that people need to quit smoking,” Sward said. “We want to help them, and one of the ways to do that is by putting in place policies we know will work.”

The Oregon Health Authority recommends the following regulations: FDA oversight, no sales to kids, no flavors, high enough prices to deter purchasing by kids, no use in smoke-free zones, and advertising restrictions.

`Just water vapor’

T-Zone carries a wide variety of e-cigarettes and bottles of e-juice. Ranging from $20 to $100, users can get as basic or high-tech as they want. The bottles of liquid that people smoke come in 5 mL to 15 mL bottles, for $8 to $20. They also range in nicotine content; some contain none.

Vonklootwyk said half of his customers who are e-cigarette users also smoke cigarettes. They use the electronic devices in situations that aren’t friendly to cigarettes, he said, whether it’s at work or around friends who dislike being around smoke.

Little, however, has replaced cigarettes altogether with e-cigarettes and he feels healthier for it, he said.

His girlfriend, Alicia Wecker, 27, also noticed a difference in Little. He can now run around playing basketball with her 13-year-old nephew — something he would not have been able to do in his cigarette-smoking days.

Wecker also switched to e-cigarettes from tobacco cigarettes.

Her nicotine consumption has greatly reduced, she said, because she can put the e-cigarette away after a few puffs, rather than finishing an entire length of a cigarette.

“My clothes smell nice,” Wecker added. “No one can smell it on me.”

Little said he also likes that there aren’t restrictions on where e-cigarettes can be used. On Tuesday, he was puffing on his e-cigarette in the mall and inside stores.

“I can go to the bar and treat it like the bar,” he said.

The couple said while they support legislation banning e-cigarette sales to minors and maybe even restricting use around schools, use restrictions in restaurants, bars and businesses should not be implemented.

“Honestly, it’s just water vapor,” Little said. “It’s not smoke. It’s not a carcinogen.”, (503) 399-6673 or follow at


E-cigarettes basics

What are e-cigarettes? E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that allow users to inhale vaporized nicotine, flavors and other chemicals. The flavors range from tobacco to pina colada. They’re different from traditional cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco and tar, and there is no burning involved. The device heats up the liquid nicotine mixture, or e-juice, converting it into vapor.

What do they look like? They come in a variety of designs. The basic varieties look like fancy pens, and the more creative types look like pipes and cigars. Some come studded with rhinestones. They also can get pretty high-tech, including ones that can charge cellphones.

How much are they? E-cigarettes range from $20 to $100. The liquids come in small bottles that cost $8 to $20.

Where are they sold? E-cigarettes can be found in convenience stores, head shops, mall kiosks and the Internet.

What is in the liquid used with e-cigarettes? The e-juice contains varying amounts of nicotine (some contain none), flavor additives and other chemicals. Because these products are not regulated, we don’t know for certain what ingredients are in the liquid mixtures or even whether the ingredients disclosed by brands are truthful.

Do e-cigarettes help smokers quit? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not found any e-cigarettes to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit.

How are e-cigarettes regulated? Currently, the FDA has no oversight on e-cigarettes, meaning business practices that have been prohibited in the tobacco industry for years are legal for e-cigarette companies. This includes FDA tobacco regulations such as registration of products, registration of brands and sub-brands, purchase restrictions for kids, disclosure of ingredients and the barring of false health claims. State and local governments across the country, however, have been erecting some basic boundaries on e-cigarettes.

What are the health impacts of e-cigarettes? There currently is not a lot of science that shows the long-term effects of e-cigarette use. But because e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they are addictive and can cause health problems and brain development issues for youths.

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