E-cigarettes: The smoking choice of a new generation?

They’re gross-tasting, foul-smelling, messy and, as we’ve been taught in school, dangerous: let’s face it, cigarettes just aren’t all that cool anymore.

But e-cigarettes—that’s a different story.

They’re sleek, stylish, relatively odorless and even tasty with their broad selection of sweet flavors.

“I feel like it’s become pretty normal for people our age to try (e-cigarettes),” one senior said.

And statistics certainly show that’s the case.

In 2012, 10 percent of high-school students reported trying e-cigarettes, a significant increase from 4.7 percent in 2011, according to a report from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At Country Day, e-cigarette usage (“vaping”) is even more common.

According to a Feb. 25 Octagon poll, 31 percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors have tried e-cigarettes (while only 16 percent have tried conventional cigarettes).

The first e-cigarette (short for electronic cigarette) was invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003, but they have since been refined and have surged in popularity the past three years.

Also known as hookah pens (especially in reference to flavored, nicotine-free varieties), e-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes: while some are designed to look exactly like conventional cigarettes, many resemble fancy metal pens.

It is illegal for minors to purchase them, though that doesn’t necessarily stop them from ordering them online or asking an 18-year-old friend to buy one.

Since e-cigarettes produce vapor rather than smoke and have no tobacco, they don’t contain many of the harmful chemicals (like tar and carbon monoxide) in conventional cigarettes and can be used publicly, without producing obtrusive odors.

Some students said they would never smoke regular cigarettes, but had no problem with vaping because e-cigarettes are safer and come in nicotine-free varieties.

“I find (regular cigarettes) repulsive and disgusting,” said one senior, who has used her nicotine-free e-cigarette once or twice a week since purchasing it about a month ago. “We’ve been so educated on how horrible they are for you, I would never use them.

“I’m sure e-cigarettes aren’t really great for you either, but I’m not about to get addicted to them any time soon.”

The variety of flavors available further encourages vaping—e-cigarettes don’t have to taste like tobacco, and few students have even tried unflavored ones.

Plus, they can be smoked inside without the permeating stench of tobacco.

“They kind of make your room smell like a weird version of Bath and Body Works,” the same senior said.

She said she has tried peach and grape flavors.

But while she and others feel confident that e-cigarettes are not a major health risk, the reality is unclear.

The nicotine in most e-liquid is still potent and addictive (though supposedly less so), but even the student-favored nicotine-free varieties are questionable.

E-cigarettes are not classified as tobacco products, so they are not currently subject to the same FDA regulations as regular cigarettes.

This lack of regulation means that the exact contents of the e-liquid are not printed on packages.

The “vapor” in e-cigarettes is not, as one might assume, simply water vapor: it also contains different chemicals (again, depending on the manufacturer) that have not yet been tested for long-term health effects.

Though e-cigarettes haven’t been thoroughly tested, some studies indicate the presence of carcinogens in these chemical mixtures—even if in lower quantities than traditional cigarettes.

In addition, other studies showed that a number of e-liquids contained largely different nicotine concentrations than advertised, and many “nicotine-free” liquids still contained small amounts of nicotine.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 1.38.55 PMBut the exact effects of e-cigarette usage are still unknown, and it is likely the FDA will begin regulating them at some point in the future.

One senior said he is scared to try e-cigarettes because they could develop into an unhealthy habit, especially if they contain tobacco.

“I could see it developing into a nervous tic for me so that when I’m doing my homework, I have to have one in my hand,” he said. “If I could always reach to an e-cig, I would.”

A major concern in the media is the marketing of e-cigarettes to minors. E-cigarettes are supposed to be therapeutic—a way of helping lifelong smokers get off of their addictions.

Though not necessarily false, even that claim isn’t backed by much more than anecdotal evidence, and recovering addicts are clearly not the only target audience.

While cigarette advertisements were banned from television in 1971 and taken off billboards in 1999, e-cigarette ads are exempt from such laws and have aired on television, even appearing during the Super Bowl.

One notable advertiser is the Blu brand of e-cigarettes, which has television ads featuring celebrities endorsing the product and implying that the lack of ash and odor solve all of the problems of traditional cigarettes.

Most Country Day students, though, said they purchased generic brands at gas stations.

The Sacramento Bee expressed its concern in a Feb. 27 editorial entitled “E-cigarettes should not be marketed to kids.”

“While companies deny they’re doing so, the tell-tale signs are there: They offer products in fruit and candy flavors, promote them in ads featuring celebrities and cartoon characters and sponsor music festivals and sporting events popular with young people,” they wrote.

And with the huge growth in teen use of e-cigarettes in the past couple years, the companies seem to have been successful in marketing.

But Country Day students said they’ve tried e-cigarettes after seeing friends use them (as opposed to getting the idea directly from commercials), and many who have tried them did it only once out of curiosity—though the same could be said about those who have tried regular cigarettes.

“I don’t know why I tried (e-cigarettes)—someone just had one and it seemed interesting,” a junior said. “I don’t do them regularly—it was just a one-time thing and kind of boring.”

She added she also tried a regular cigarette once “just to experiment” and doesn’t think e-cigarettes are a gateway to regular cigarettes.

Other students said they smoke somewhat regularly—generally with friends or at parties.

“It gives me something to do, and it’s not as bad as it would be to smoke directly from a pipe or an actual cigarette,” said a senior who uses nicotine-free e-cigarettes with friends.

Still others say they use e-cigarettes to play with the smoke and do tricks (a Google search of “hookah pen” yields examples of this on YouTube on the first page of the results).

“It’s almost like a toy in a way,” another senior said. “Playing with the smoke is really fun. I don’t want to use it often, but when I do, it’s mostly because it’s amusing.”

She added that while she first tried e-cigarettes with friends, she usually smokes them alone in her room.

Another senior who hasn’t smoked any types of cigarettes before said he could see the fun in it and compared it to blowing “smoke” by inhaling ground-up Smarties or other candies.

Despite the significant number of SCDS students who have tried e-cigarettes, all interviewees either tried them only once or use them irregularly, and very few have even tried ones that (were advertised to) contain nicotine.

And with much research still to be done and legislation to be decided, the future of e-cigarettes and their marketing is still unclear.

Laws have been passed in New York and Chicago prohibiting e-cigarette use in public places (where tobacco is normally prohibited), and similar legislation has been discussed in Davis and Rancho Cordova over the past two weeks.

But only time will tell whether they become popularized as a cool, new, harmless toy or ultimately create a new generation of smokers.

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