Arizona’s recent ban on e-cigarette sales to minors may sound sensible, but some lawmakers and health experts believe it’s actually a step in the wrong direction.
Critics say the way Arizona’s law was written will make it more difficult for the federal government and the Food and Drug Administration to further regulate e-cigarettes to users of all ages.
On the flip side are those who say e-cigarettes are a healthy steppingstone to quitting smoking.
A new, popular and less expensive alternative to cigarettes, e-cigarettes offer nicotine in a flavored, smokeless form. Many users believe it to be a highly effective smoking cessation device, but at this time there is no regulation to ensure the ingredients are safe.
The devices look like a real cigarette. It is a 3- to 6-inch tube containing a battery and an atomizer cartridge that holds liquid. When the user draws in, a switch turns on a mini-heating element and produces a vapor.
An e-cigarette costs $10-$30, depending on whether it’s disposable or refillable. One disposable e-cigarette is equivalent to two to three packs of cigarettes, which by comparison can cost upward of $20.
Arizona is the most recent of 22 states that ban the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone 18 and younger.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that because e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they are a gateway to addiction.
“Just because electronic cigarettes don’t give you lung cancer from smoke, they still aren’t good for you. They contain nicotine and they’re addictive,” said Arizona Sen. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat from Phoenix who supported the law. “I think they should be controlled just like regular cigarettes.”
But what’s really needed is for e-cigarettes to be regulated the same way tobacco is, said Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research at the national Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, which is based in Washington D.C.
The new Arizona law designates e-cigarettes as a “vapor” product, not as tobacco. Federal law considers e-cigarettes to be a tobacco product, but state laws can classify it differently, as Arizona did .
Even though they contain nicotine, e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, which exempts them from previous laws banning tobacco sales to minors. That’s where problems with the new Arizona law arise.
McGoldrick said what’s needed is stricter regulation to make sure that e-cigarettes aren’t a threat to public health.
“The way Arizona’s law was written carves out a separate definition for e-cigarettes,” McGoldrick said. “This sets them up to be exempt from any future tobacco regulation.”
And safety information about e-cigarettes is still murky, said Myra Muramoto, senior vice head of the University of Arizona’s College of Family and Community Medicine.
“I can’t recommend this as a smoking cessation device because the safety isn’t established,” Muramoto said. “Although there are public health concerns, people perceive them as less harmful.
“The concern is, should we allow children to do something when we don’t know the risks? Drugs that affect the central nervous system act differently on a developing brain than a mature one.”
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says e-cigarette companies are using the same methods Big Tobacco used for marketing, and Muramoto fears that adolescents will get sucked into believing that smoking e-cigarettes is part of a glamorous lifestyle. For that reason, she thinks banning e-cigarettes to minors was a necessary measure.
Tobacco commercials are no longer allowed on television but commercials for e-cigarettes are permitted. At this year’s Super Bowl, an ad for Scottsdale-based NJoy e-cigarettes generated a 40 percent increase in sales in the five markets that it aired, according to NJoy chief executive Craig Weiss.
U.S. attorneys general from 41 states, including Tom Horne of Arizona, recently made a joint request to the FDA to promptly issue a new set of rules governing the sale of e-cigarettes.
“Consumers are led to believe that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to cigarettes despite the fact that they’re addictive,” their letter states.
“The FDA needs to assert its authority here,” echoed McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “The States also can include e-cigarettes with all their tobacco regulation. They are legally tobacco products, not a separate thing.”
The FDA has stated it intends to issue a proposed rule that would deem products meeting the statutory definition of a “tobacco product,” which includes e-cigarettes, to be subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Studies by the U.S. attorney general found that e-cigarette sales have doubled every year since 2008, with sales expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2013.
This week, the CDC’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report included a study about the increasing use of electronic cigarettes. The popularity of the devices are due to an increase in marketing, availability and visibility of these tobacco products and the belief that they may be safer than cigarettes, the study says.
Part of that growing popularity is a rise in so-called “vapor lounges,” where customers can buy rechargeable e-cigarettes and the “e-juice” liquid used to refill them, then retreat to a separate lounge area to smoke.
Amp Juice Vapor Lounge opened a store on East Broadway at Swan Road earlier this year. A second location recently relocated to Prince and Fairview, and manager Audra Thorpe said customer response has been great.
A sign on the front door alerts customers that minors are not allowed to purchase, and customers are asked for ID, but Thorpe said that’s not because of the new law.
“We’ve never sold to minors,” she said. “If a minor is with a parent, they can come in, but that’s all.”
When the law was passed in September, Thorpe had a copy of it posted on the counter at the Broadway location for customers to see.
The lobby of the Prince store is white and spotless. Glass display cases of products line the walls and at the front there is a counter with bar stools for customers to sit on as they wait for their juices to be mixed.
Amp has hundreds of custom flavors and juices, and customer feedback to their selection and environment of the store has been favorable, Thorpe said. They try to make it as friendly and cozy for their customers to enjoy, she said.
Thorpe belongs to a local vapor group that meets once a month. The group discusses industry news, new juice combinations as well as the laws and FDA regulations. Thorpe said they like to keep their customers informed and regularly update their Facebook page.
Because there’s a federal law that e-cigarettes cannot be marketed as a smoking cessation device, Amp has always relied on customer experiences.
“We can’t advocate e-cigarettes to quit smoking,” Thorpe said. “But we can relay customer testimonials and their positive experiences and results.”
Thorpe said customers have said their physicians recommended they switch to e-cigarettes if they’re going to keep smoking.
The Arizona law hasn’t changed business at Old Pueblo Vapor Lounge in Tucson, owner Keith Reinhart said. Minors have never been allowed inside the store, which opened in June 2012.
“I understand that people have kids,” Reinhart said. “We have iPads that we can use to ring people up outdoors if they can’t come in with their children.”
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, a virtual nonprofit organization, supports the use of e-cigarettes.
President Elaine Keller of Virginia says she quit a 45-year smoking habit in 2009 by switching to e-cigarettes.
Keller doesn’t believe that e-cigarettes are marketed to minors, nor does her organization believe teenagers are attracted to them.
“I think that the more important thing here is to try to do away with the accusation that e-cigarettes are marketed to children and that children become addicted at an earlier age,” Keller said.
Keller supports outlawing e-cigarettes at public schools but has a different opinion about college campuses.
“College students are adults who can make their own decisions,” she said “and e-cigarettes are not harmful to bystanders.”
A recent study by the federal Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program found that instead of quitting, more people are moving toward dual use. They may cut down on their regular cigarette use but they’re not quitting and they’re adding e-cigarettes into the mix.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network has already urged the FDA to issue further regulatory guidance until more research can be done on the safety.
“ACS does not oppose including e-cigarettes in existing Arizona state youth access laws limiting the sale of tobacco products to underage youth,” said Brian Hummell, government relations director. “However, we believe this should have been done by refining the existing definition of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes.”
The Tucson Unified School District banned e-cigarettes on school campuses before the start of this school year.
The current tobacco policy at the UA only addresses standard tobacco products, and no smoking is permitted within 25 feet of university buildings. E-cigarettes are not part of any UA policy yet, so technically students can smoke them anywhere.
Arizona State University became a tobacco-free campus in August, banning all tobacco or nicotine products including e-cigarettes anywhere on campus, even outside.
Pima Community College is considering a policy that would restrict the use of smoking to designated areas on all campuses. A final decision is anticipated for early 2014.
The CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, released in September, reported that e-cigarette usage in young people is rapidly increasing, having doubled from 2011 to 2012. In the survey, 10 percent of high school students reported having used e-cigarettes at least once.
The trend is troubling to Muramoto, which is why she supports regulating the use of e-cigarettes by minors. And parents and guardians should be aware that manufacturers don’t disclose the ingredients in e-cigarettes, she stressed.
“We just don’t know about the safety of these products,” she said “At this point, it’s really just a buyer beware situation.”