By Ashleigh Lee
I am at the Granada and I can barely see anything through the foggy air. A few lights at the bar illuminate the smoke clouds that begin to rise. A group of under-aged kids stand next to me, the “X’s” drawn deeply on the back of their hands with a black marker. Another cloud of smoke surrounds us but it’s not smoke; it’s vapor from an e-cigarette.
My introduction to the vaping community comes from my brother. He won’t tell me if he smokes cigarettes, but he openly vapes around our family and me. He will do it in the car or while walking on the street. I began to wonder if he did it to quit smoking or if he wanted to do it because it was the popular thing to do. This sparked my curiosity about the culture that surrounds vaping and e-cigarette culture. Last summer I took a research assistant position with Dr. Yvonnes Chen of the journalism school monitoring the tobacco marketing on American Indian Reservations. As our research continued we decided to branch out and study e-cigarette use.
According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 42.1 million adults are smoking cigarettes in the United States. That’s nearly 19 of 100 adults 18-24 year olds. But since the FDA does not regulate e-cigarettes, there is little information about who is using them, why they are using them and their long-term health effects.
States have been taking a stance on regulations such as what age you have to be to buy e-cigs and where they can be used. For example, Kansas only allows adults 18 and older to purchase the device and there is no statewide ban; but restaurants, bars and gambling facilities are exempted from any regulation.
An e-cigarette is a battery-powered device that heats up coils, then the liquid “juice” and is converted into a vapor form. They are relatively cheap; starter kits can range anywhere from $20 to $50, and liquid “juice” runs anywhere from $1 to $10 depending where you buy from. E-cig liquid is the most appealing part of the experience. There are flavors ranging from mint to give the illusion that you are smoking a menthol cigarette, to fruity flavors like strawberry and grape, to regular tobacco flavors and there are even flavors to taste like your favorite beverage like a piña colada or coffee. But the flavors and cheap prices are also appealing to the younger demographics.
Dr. Chen outlines three concerns that public health officials are facing with youth and e-cigs. “Adolescences’ brains are very sensitive to nicotine and since there are hundreds of flavors available that could easily make youth addicted to them.”
Chen also said the second concern comes from a recent study in Wales, children 10-11 years old who had used e-cigs expressed that they would want to try traditional cigarettes. The last concern is that once they try cigarettes, they will become addicted to them.
“In terms of research we know very little about e-cigs,” Chen says. “But we don’t know how children and adolescence are perceiving cigarettes. We know adults’ perceptions, but not youths yet.”
A literature review published in 2013 about electronic cigarettes and college students says that it might be because of the novelty of the product. “Sensation seeking is a personality trait resulting in the need for simulation, novel experiences and risk taking,” it says. Many times e-cigarettes come off as novelty with limited-edition flavors and packaging that entice users to want to buy the product since it might not be around much longer.
What we know about e-cigarettes is that they have helped people quit smoking. Many times former smokers find the need to keep their mouths and occupied stemming of the habit of smoking cigarettes. E-cigs help fill that void and are perceived as a better alternative. But e-cigs have not officially been recognized as a quitting device.
The new social experiment
To understand more about e-cigarettes for myself I went to The Vapors Edge E-Cig Shop at 1901 Mass St. The store is a local family owned and operated business by Robby Swonger. When I walked inside I saw two young girls and a guy hanging out in the store. One was working and the other two vaping and hanging out – none of them looking older than 18.
Swonger, a former nurse practitioner, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life. He turned to e-cigs as a way to quit smoking and has never looked back. “I thought that if it worked for me, it could work for others,” he says.
But he does not encourage people to use it as an alternative to traditional cigarettes to nonsmokers since nicotine is still an addictive substance. He says that if a customer does not have a history with cigarettes, he will not sell them e-cigs.
“I do not encourage anyone who does not have a history of smoking to vape,” he says. “Why would you want to add that to your lungs?”
He says that main age range his store sees is 34-to-50 year olds who have quit smoking. Even though there are no studies supporting e-cigs as an official cigarette-quitting device, he does say that it has helped many, including himself, quit smoking. While the store may see a range of customers from 20 to 90, he says that he will not sell any products to anyone under 18. He doesn’t want to encourage anyone who is not smoking already to take up vaping.
Zack Lickteig, a sales associate at the store, says that he began smoking around the time he was 13, dipping by the time he was 15 and now at 19 has been tobacco free since he started vaping about a year ago.
He believes in the social influence that vaping has created. “It’s a very social thing, it’s like the hookah culture,” Lickteig says. “The vaping community has been rising and rising so much. There are vape clubs, conventions, lounges and it has been helping people quit.”
But he also believes that the price and the variety of flavors are also causing popularity amongst the younger consumers. Currently, the FDA has banned the use of flavors as marketing tools in many cities and counties across the Untied States since it might attract younger audiences and entices them to use the product.
Kyndra Willis hangs out in the store with Lickteig and another friend. At 18, Willis also says that she uses vaping to help her quit smoking. She started smoking cigarettes when she was 14 and vaping two years ago. She believes that people start vaping because of acceptance. “I think mostly for people around our age it’s mostly for popularity,” she says. “For most people it is, but for people like me, it’s to help stay calm and not smoke cigarettes.”
Willis says that when she gets stressed she will turn to vaping. It’s an easy way for her to just sit back, relax and have a few minutes to herself with her e-cig. She does not believe in the vaping for approval.
And neither does Swonger. He does not like the idea that people would use the product for popularity. “I would hate to see e-cigs labeled as a popularity thing,” he says. “If it turns out that way, that’s how we’re going to get the FDA involved.”
All though vaping is allowed in restaurants, gambling facilities and bars, both Swonger and Lickteig believe that there is a level of respect that comes with it. Since the e-cig does not get hot enough to combust, the vapor has not shown any evidence of carcinogen being produced, making it as far as we know to be safe to breathe second hand.
But even though you can vape while enjoying a meal or a cocktail, that does not mean it is socially acceptable to pull out an e-cig and start vaping while you have a drink or eat your dinner. There is still the stigma that comes with smoking in public places. People have the image of cigarettes creating of clouds of smoke, filling the air with the thick smell that clings to your clothes and hair, believing it to also apply to e-cigs. But since e-cigs do not produce smoke, and the vapor flavors may create a subtle scent, it does not produce a smoke cloud or a foul smell.
Swonger says that vapers should be reverent when vaping in public spaces. “It’s not a cigarette and it does not have any smoke or carcinogens,” he says. “But I don’t vape in restaurants or on planes. It’s just a respect thing and we all need to respect each other.
The future of e-cigarettes
Swonger says that he says does not want vaping to be taken as a fad and it still be taken seriously and should only be used by people who have a history smoking.
Swonger says that if it does become a certified nicotine replacement device it would become a pharmaceutical tool then, which is what the vaping industry is trying to avoid because the FDA would then become involved.
Currently, the FDA does not regulate cigars, pipe tobacco, gels and wastepipe tobacco, but that might all soon change. The FDA has talked about extending the deeming period, which started April 2014, to get more time to understand the product.
Chen also says that more research needs to be done in order to determine how harmful e-cigarettes actually are. She says that if people are able to see how the youth perceive the culture of these products, it could help us understand how it could effect nicotine addiction in adolescents.
For right now all anyone can do is wait to see if further research can determine whether or not e-cigs are just as harmful as cigarettes or if they could actually be good nicotine replacement tools.
Edited by Katie Gilbaugh