This year alone, nearly 26,000 Texas kids will become daily smokers, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Now some anti-smoking advocates fear that instead of starting with traditional tobacco cigarettes, kids will reach for the newer electronic cigarettes.
An e-cigarette is a battery-powered device that vaporizes liquid for users to inhale. Users have the choice of filling their device with flavored liquids that may or may not contain nicotine. And flavors of e-cigarettes abound, ranging from traditional tobacco flavoring to cherry, bubblegum and chocolate.
The device emits vapor, not smoke. E-cigarettes are so new that scientists say it may take years before they really know how e-cigarettes affect our health.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found kids are trying them and findings in 2012 from the National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that one in 10 high school students had tried e-cigarettes. That’s double the number from 2011.
Use of e-cigarettes also doubled among kids in middle school.
“They haven’t been on the marketplace for long enough to be able to do those chronic studies of 20- to 40-year consumption of the chemicals in e-cigarettes,” said Caroline Rickards, an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Rickards is studying how e-cigarettes affect brain blood flow. She said while electronic cigarettes may not have some of the cancer-causing chemicals of traditional cigarettes the products and the research are both in their infancy.
“Traditional cigarettes were once perceived as safe and healthy. And over the years we’ve come to know that they’re not. And that sort of work needs to be done with e-cigarettes as well just to assure that the level of safety is appropriate and that level of investigation and scientific evidence is actually achieved,” said Rickards.
Yet safety isn’t a concern for 20-year-old Nathan Watkins, who uses e-cigarettes and works at Posh Vapors, which sells e-cigarettes, in Garland.
“I haven’t seen any adverse effects,” said Watkins. “I haven’t gotten sick. I haven’t had any coughs.”
Watkins said he “vapes” the equivalent of a half-a-pack of traditional cigarettes a day.
“I was attracted to flavor as opposed to nicotine or buzz content,” said Watkins, whose experience working in hookah lounge piqued his interest in e-cigarettes.
Among his treasure trove of flavors are Irish cream, banana taffy, blue raspberry and one called sugar lips, which Watkins described as cookie-like.
Flavors like these concern researchers like Dr. Robert Jackler, the principle investigator for the Stanford Research Into The Impact of Tobacco Advertising.
“Those are all designed to link in new smokers, young people, that want to experiment, but they’re experimenting with something that’s flavored as though it was a lifesaver [candy] or a mocha drink and so it helps to get them caught in the nicotine,” said Jackler.
The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of flavored cigarettes in 2009. And while the FDA is looking into whether it should regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products, as of now there are no federal regulations for how e-cigarettes are made or how they’re marketed.
Jackler, who has studied more than 20,000 cigarette ads, believes along with the kid-friendly flavors e-cigarette companies target kids in their ads by glamorizing adolescent themes like freedom and rebellion. He said they mirror cigarette ads before they were regulated.
“Electronic cigarettes go right back to the heyday, it’s like being 1935 all over again,” he said. “If you look at the advertising strategy of the e-cigarette industry, it is directly related to starter smokers.”
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association insists e-cigarettes are not marketed to minors. The advocacy group instead said adults are featured in the ads, and more than 80 percent of e-cigarette users are older than 30 and had smoked for 10 or more years.
Yet according to the CDC, nearly 90 percent of adult cigarette smokers say they started as kids.
“Nobody starts smoking virtually as an adult. The initiation of smoking is an adolescent habit that begins from the age of 10 or 11 and goes to 19 or 20 where kids smoke because they want to feel older,” said Jackler.
Kyle Newton smoked from the age of 12 to the age of 18, though he now vapes e-cigarettes. He’s also the President and CEO of SS Choice, LLC, the maker of 7’s brand e-cigarettes. His Southlake-based company is four years old and is set to gross $5 million this year.
“The product is best viewed as a reduced harm solution until somebody can put their 100 percent stamp of approval saying its harmful-free product,” he said.
Newton said his company has a strict policy not to create flavors that kids may be more attracted to, like bubblegum. He also won’t sell to minors.
Neither will Posh Vapors.
Watkins said while the some of the flavors Posh sells may be more popular among a younger clientele, that’s not who he sees shopping at there.
“We wouldn’t get as much young people as you would think, young being the fresh 18’s out of high school, more of the 30-35 plus crowd who have been smoking for a very long time and they want to quit due to either health reasons or family.” he said.
Mike Nolan, a Posh customer, said he kicked his 40-year cigarette habit in four days with e-cigarettes. One retired teacher also said that e-cigarettes helped her quit smoking. Watkins said e-cigarettes helped his parents quit as well.
And he’s not at all concerned that vaping e-cigarettes can lead to a lifetime of traditional smoking. But he doesn’t rule out a lifetime of vaping. And researchers said that’s what’s concerning because the product is so new.
“Whether there’s no risk or some risk, the consumer just needs to know either way,” said Rickards.