Vaping grows in popularity; health officials concerned

Posted at 10:12 PM, Nov 07, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-08 00:33:08-05

RIVERTON, Utah -- Travis Worthen smoked as many as two packs a day for about 27 years, trying everything to quit.

"I'd gone through everything in the book, different medications, the different prescriptions from doctors, the gum, everything," he said in an interview with FOX 13. "I'd actually given up. I'd had enough. I'd tried everything, cold turkey."

Then, his friends told him to try vaping as a way to wean himself off of cigarettes. The results, he claims, are life changing.

"After 27 years of smoking, about one week it took and I was done with cigarettes," he said.

E-cigarettes are being touted as an alternative to traditional tobacco products -- and some claim they are much healthier. But health departments are becoming increasingly concerned about the new devices -- and lawmakers are gearing up to put them under tighter scrutiny.

"It's not about quitting, really," said Aaron Frazier, of the Utah Vapers Association, a group that represents ecigarette retailers in the state. "It's really about making a switch to an alternative that doesn't have 4,000 carcinogens and toxins and poisons."

E-cigarettes originated in China, coming to the United States in 2006. Since then, the devices -- with their nicotine "juice" packs -- have been growing in popularity. The devices retail for $60 with the juice selling for $7, as much as a pack of cigarettes.

"It's propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, nicotine, flavors and then water that's in it," said Paul Evans, the owner of Vapor Craziness in Riverton.

People who have switched from tobacco to e-cigarettes claim they have been helping them kick the habit. Vaping shop owners said the majority of their customers want an alternative to tobacco.

"We have a lot of wives bring their husbands in and say, 'Hey, I'm tired of kissing an ashtray. Convert him,'" said Evans. "So it does happen. People have quit smoking with these."

As vaping grows in popularity, stores are popping up all over the state. The Utah Vapers Association said there are 25 retailers across the state, with more slated to open by the end of the year.

It's the sudden popularity of the devices that has health officials concerned. A recent study by the Utah Department of Health, obtained by FOX 13, found e-cigarette use by teenagers has skyrocketed -- 500-percent in Weber and Morgan counties alone.

In 2011, only 3.6-percent of teens in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades admitted to trying e-cigarettes. In 2013, that number had grown in Weber and Morgan counties to 30-percent, much higher than neighboring Salt Lake and Davis counties.

"Roughly one out of every three youth in Weber County have experimented with e-cigarettes," said Kristi Jones, with Tobacco Control and Prevention for the Weber-Morgan Health Department. "It's startling. When we saw those at the health department, we were very concerned."

Jones blames the high tech nature of the devices, the flavors and the cost as an allure to teens. She accused them of marketing the devices to youth.

Frazier insisted that is not the case -- but acknowledged teens were picking them up.

"Ihe industry is certainly not marketing towards children. I would stake my reputation on that one," he said. "But from a youth adoption, it is happening. I know it is. Kids pick up cigarettes, they pick up alcohol, they pick up marijuana, they're going to pick up e-cigarettes. It's just how kids are. They will experiment."

Vaper shops have signs in their windows refusing to sell to anyone under 19, Frazier said.

Health officials were also concerned about the lack of regulation of e-cigarettes and retailers. The U.S. Food and Drug Association has not yet ruled if they will fall under the same regulations as tobacco products.

"Until we really see the e-cigarettes going through the testing by the FDA to become an approved cessation device, we cannot endorse them as such," said Jones.

Jones said there is not enough scientific study to know how e-cigarettes affect people's health. Frazier cited some recent studies claiming that the devices are healthier than traditional tobacco cigarettes.

The Utah State Legislature is considering regulation of e-cigarettes. Bills are expected to be introduced in the coming session to put them in the same category as tobacco products (a bill taxing them at the same level failed last year). There is also a plan to raise the smoking age from 19 to 21.

Frazier said his group is willing to submit to some level of regulation -- including better labeling and childproof caps for devices.

"We did support it and we do support it at the legislation next session," he told FOX 13. "Providing it doesn't take it to the extreme."