Vaping on the rise in Nebraska

The use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) is on the rise. But what makes them attractive to smokers, may also get them in hot water with legislators. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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October 25, 2013 - 6:30am

The Centers for Disease Control recently released results from a study which showed use of electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigs”, has doubled among middle and high school students. In Nebraska, concern over kids using e-cigs is sparking debate over where lawmakers should draw the line.


Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A sign on the front door of GNS Vapors in Lincoln clearly displays to minors they are not allowed in the store. Aaron Guenter, the store's owner, said e-cigs are meant for adults. He supports the move to ban the sale of e-cigs to minors.

A steady stream of customers came through the doors at GNS Vapor in Lincoln. Around a dozen people, from all walks of life, peered into the glass cases filled with various parts. They looked for what they needed to support their habit—vaping. That’s what it’s called when you use electronic cigarettes.

A little fog machine with nicotine

Aaron Guenter is the owner of GNS Vapor, and describes electronic cigarettes as little fog machines with nicotine. His best-selling electronic-cigarette, or e-cig, looks like a cross between a pen and a flashlight.

But in this device, a rechargeable battery powers a small heating coil which vaporizes a liquid called the “e-juice.”

“Contained inside that liquid is flavoring, a few ingredients like vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, and the nicotine is also inside that fluid,” Guenter said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A fairly common, electronic cigarette. The bottom blue portion is the battery. The grey tank holds the juice, which contains the nicotine. As the user presses down the button in the middle, they inhale through the mouthpiece. Pressing the button activates a heating coil which turns the liquid to vapor.

Aside from the nicotine, Guenter said all the ingredients are very safe.

“All are very common in the food industry,” he explained. “You’re probably taking them into your body already.”

And just like in the food industry, when it comes to e-cigs, flavor is everything—strawberry, watermelon, cucumber mint, sugar cake. Guenter has more than 250 recipes in production.

Critics of e-cigs cite the availability of flavors, a practice banned in conventional cigarettes, as one of the reasons behind the so-called “vape-craze.” For the first time, consumers can inhale a tasty concoction containing nicotine—the addictive substance found in tobacco products—without the tobacco.

Better for you than cigarettes?

Dr. Mohammad Siahpush is a Professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health.

“First of all, the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. say these products are not smoking-cessation devices, because there’s no evidence to show that they help smoking cessation,” Siahpush said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Dr. Mohammad Siahpush is a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He says it's hard to find an unbiased study concerning e-cigs. He says until an unbiased, epidemiological study can be performed, there is no way of knowing the long term health risks associated with vaping.

Siahpush added only a long-term, epidemiological study can determine whether vaping is better for smokers than tobacco.

“There may be some promise in them in terms of harm reduction, because they appear to be less harmful than cigarettes, but we don’t know really. It appears. It appears because there’s no combustion, there’s no tar,” Siahpush said.

Regardless of health concerns, Siahpush was adamant flavored nicotine shouldn’t be in the hands of minors, or their lungs.

“E-cigarette companies appear to be marketing their product to children, because they are using a lot of flavors—strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, menthol—all sorts of flavors that are appealing to children,” Siahpush said.

A minor addiction

So why has taste become such an important part of the e-cig discussion? For starters, in many states, including Nebraska, there’s no law banning minors from buying them. The Food and Drug Administration regulates the tobacco industry. However, the FDA has yet to decide whether to include e-cigs, and more specifically the e-cig juice, under its definition of “Tobacco Products”.

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported the number of middle and high school students who used e-cigs at least once in the past 30 days doubled between 2011 and 2012, increasing from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A list of the many flavored juices available to e-cig users. E-cig proponents say flavored juices can help smokers make the transition to e-cigs from conventional cigarettes. Critics, however, say these types of flavors are marketed towards children.

At Kearney High School, principal Jay Dostell said his staff hasn’t seen any students vaping yet, but he said he would not allow them in the classroom.

“We would view that as paraphernalia associated with smoking, which our handbook clearly states [students are] not allowed to have those things,” Dostell said.

In an emailed statement, Dr. Jami Jo Thompson, the superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools in northeast Nebraska, said, “We have not had any issues with e-cigarettes. We are aware that this has been a recent topic in the news and will monitor the situation, but at this point we have not observed any instances of e-cigarettes on campus.”

Smoker turns to vaping

Young people smoking is nothing new. Darla McGahan is in her mid-50’s, but started smoking when she was 15.

“Cool thing to do, we’d go to the football games and smoke, you know? Didn’t know anything about it,” McGahan said.

Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Darla McGahan and her boyfriend, Sean Fayey, were both lifelong smokers. Then, in January of this year, they both started vaping. They say they've been tobacco free since making the move. Fahey said not only does he think vaping is good for his health, but his wallet as well. Fahey said the two of them spent close to $500 a month on cigarettes. Now, they spend around $30 on juices for their e-cigs.

40 years later, McGahan lives just outside of Beaver City in southwest Nebraska. She called the area very “tobacco friendly."

After smoking for the majority of her life, McGahan started vaping in January. 

“This has been a miracle. This has been life saving for me. Totally, 100 percent. That’s why I’m such an advocate for them, and it would be a shame for them to go away,” McGahan said, expressing her concern about the impending FDA ruling.

McGahan is now a member of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. She credits e-cigs, and their flavors, for helping her cut tobacco out of her life.

“This here is called beach bonfire, and it’s coconut cinnamon,” McGahan said, as she vaped in downtown Beaver City. “I have fruit flavors, gum flavors, candy flavors. I have about five flavors right now, and they’re all sweet flavors.”

Lawmakers discuss regulation

Concern over minors buying these same flavored juices prompted the Nebraska legislature to conduct an interim study on e-cigs.

Senator Russ Karpisek from Nebraska’s 37th initiated the study.

“Occasionally technology outpaces policy, this seems to be the case with electronic cigarettes,” Karpisek said.

Even though most retailers he’s encountered impose their own regulations on selling e-cigs to minors, Karpisek said he plans to introduce legislation as early as January to make it illegal to sell e-cigs to minors.

In the meantime, stores like GNS Vapor continue selling their electronic cigarettes and those sales are strong. As a whole, the industry topped $1.5 billion in sales in 2012.

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