FOX19 Investigates: E-Cigs sold to kids

(FOX19) - More and more people in the Tri-State are trying electronic cigarettes – including children.

A recent national study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 1.8 million middle and high school students had used electronic or e-cigarettes in 2012, that's double the previous year. The CDC based its findings on a questionnaire from thousands of students from grades 6 through 12.

Health and public officials are concerned the data suggests e-cigarettes may be a gateway drug to smoking, that kids may be getting hooked on nicotine through electronic cigarettes then transition to smoking conventional tobacco cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes emit no smoke, but heat liquid nicotine and flavors into a vapor.

While e-cigarettes may look like the real thing, they're not subject to U.S tobacco laws. The e-cigarette industry is largely unrelated.

In September, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine joined 39 other state attorneys general to urge the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the e-cigarette industry the same way it regulates the tobacco industry and restrict use by minors.

"In the state of Ohio, you can buy e-cigarettes no matter what your age," DeWine said. "it's not just vapor they're inhaling. It's heated nicotine and nicotine we know, is highly addictive."

The Ohio House is also considering a bill, House Bill 144, that would prevent minors from using or buying alternative tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

Part of the public concern comes from the way electronic cigarettes are marketed.  It's been decades since cigarette commercials were on television, but now flashy e-cigs ads are on the Internet and advertised during late night television broadcasts. Some of the ads feature cartoon characters and celebrity endorsements.

Actress Jenny McCarthy pitches blu e-cigarettes. In one commercial, she's seen puffing on a blu e-cig, it's trademark blue tip lights up and she says, "I've found a smarter alternative to e-cigarettes. Blu e-cigs."

Also of concern are the flavors of some e-cigarettes.  While you can find traditional tobacco, you can also e-cigs with flavors that include Hawaiian punch, bubble gum and cotton candy. Critics charges those flavors are especially appealing to children.

"I think that should be addressed," said Cincinnati mom of three Michelle Setzer. "I don't think a 21-year-old or a 33-year-old adult wants a bubble gum cigarette, that's not the market they're targeting."

The e-cigarette industry is now a billion and a half dollar industry.  In fact, new "vaping" shops are lighting up sales. The AltSmoke Lounge, which has "vaping" juice in more than a hundred flavors, opened in Eastgate a few months ago.  It's the company's fourth location; they also have stores in New Philadelphia, Columbus and  Lexington, Ky.

"So we run the gamut from traditional tobacco flavors to banana nut bread," said AltSmoke district manager Frank Cahall. "Traditional cigarettes are burning tobacco and paper, with electronic cigarettes, you're simply vaporizing the juice.

Cahall said at the AltSmoke locations they card anyone who looks under 30 years old and support the Ohio bill that would restrict underage access to e-cigarettes.  He also points out that many of the vapor flavors they stock contain no nicotine.

AltSmoke customer Drew Denton said he used e-cigarettes and vaping juice to help him quit a 20-year smoking habit, a habit he said could have killed him.

"I'm a cardiac patient, I've had several heart attacks, I have a defibrillator, a pacemaker, low heart function," said Denton. "No, they're not cigarettes, they look like them, they taste like them, but they're not."

While some former smokers claim they've helped them quit, e-cigarettes can't be marketed as a smoking cessation device and the American Lung Association has raised concerns about the product's long-term health effects. In a statement to FOX19, the Ohio branch of the American Cancer Society also questioned "the marketing techniques used by e-cigarette companies."

And what might surprise you, RJ Reynolds -- the company that makes Camel, Winston and Salem cigarettes -- also makes Vuse e-cigarettes. Other tobacco companies, including Lorillard, have e-cigarette divisions.

"Big tobacco is just looking to get into another business to make money," Cahall said.

The Food and Drug Administration is soon expected to formally release its proposed regulations for e-cigarettes.  It had set an October 31 deadline, but the partial government shutdown delayed the announcement.

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