GREENFIELD — It happens every week.

A teenager approaches the counter and asks for electronic cigarettes, hoping the tobacco alternative is legal for those under 18.

Stephanie Rogers has to shoo minors away from her electronic cigarette shop in downtown Greenfield several times a week. And that’s no surprise: E-cigarette use among teens tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to newly released data tracking youth tobacco use.

The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, showed that about 2 million teens admitted to using the devices regularly in 2014, compared with roughly 660,000 in 2013.

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Rogers said it’s not uncommon for youths to ignore a number of signs posted at Vapor Lock’s entrance, warning that only those 18 or older may purchase the devices in Indiana.

She turns away those who can’t legally purchase the vaporized nicotine products, which she suspects might be drawing teens because they seem trendy compared with their traditional counterparts.

For the first time since the CDC began tracking e-cigarette use in 2011, their popularity has surpassed all other tobacco products.

Based on interactions with the county’s middle and high school students, some local health advocates said they believe the national statistics reflect trends in Hancock County.

Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse is a Greenfield-based organization that monitors substance abuse among county youth and promotes programming aimed at curbing the problem.

Soon, the organization hopes to be able to present data backing up its suspicion that e-cigarette use is on the rise in Hancock County as well. A question about e-cigarette use was added to the 2015 alcohol and substance use survey taken annually by area teens. Those results are expected to be available in September.

Brandee Bastin, coordinator for the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition, called the national findings alarming but said she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hancock County teens are following the trend.

A growing problem

The National Youth Tobacco Survey is taken annually by about 22,000 middle and high school students in public and private schools across the country.

The 2014 questionnaire revealed 13.4 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes regularly. Only 4.5 percent used e-cigarettes in 2013. The survey also revealed that e-cigarette use among middle school students is also on the rise, more than tripling from 1.1 percent, or 120,000 students, in 2013 to 3.9 percent, or 450,000 students, in 2014.

E-cigarettes were the most common tobacco product used by teens last year, followed by hookah at 9.4 percent and traditional cigarettes at 9.2 percent. Cigars were used by 8.2 percent of the nation’s teens and smokeless tobacco by 5.5 percent.

Tim Retherford, executive director of Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse, said local youths have shown behaviors similar to those reflected in wider studies.

Local statistics compiled by the organization rank smoking as the second-highest teen substance abuse problem in Hancock County, behind underage drinking.

Data show 14.9 percent of the class of 2015 used cigarettes in 2013; 6.4 percent used smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco; 7.5 percent used cigars; and 7.9 percent used pipes.

For the class of 2017: 7 percent used cigarettes in 2013; 2.9 percent used smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco; 1.7 percent used cigars; and 3.6 percent used pipes.

Retherford said NASA, in conjunction with the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition, has been working for more than a decade to inform teens about the damage substance use can have on their bodies and future. He believes the effort is working. In that time, local surveys suggest the number of teens drinking and smoking underage has greatly decreased.

But the data regarding e-cigarettes “completely undermines all of our work and progress,” Bastin said.

Safety in question

Marketing for e-cigarettes often portrays the products as fashionable and safer than traditional cigarettes, she said. Their brightly colored cartridges and wide range of flavors make them even more appealing to teens.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates only traditional cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes used for therapeutic purposes, according to its website. E-cigarettes used for recreational purposes are not regulated.

Experts have expressed concerns that because the FDA doesn’t regulate e-cigarettes, that means there are no standards in place regarding what can and cannot be put into the liquids used in e-cigarettes, and manufacturers decide the level of nicotine and other chemicals.

“Kids think these fruit-flavored, cookie-flavored — you name it — devices are safe; when in reality they can be just as dangerous as smoking,” Bastin said.

Last fall, she spoke with the student body at Eastern Hancock High School about e-cigarette use after school Principal David Pfaff approached her with concerns.

Pfaff said he and his teachers had heard their students discussing e-cigarettes. In addition, several students tested positive for nicotine during routine school drug tests, and a handful were found with e-cigarettes on school property.

The combination of events left Pfaff feeling that the school had a larger problem: Many students believed using e-cigarettes carried none of the risks of traditional cigarettes.

“I really think many of them thought they were just candy,” Pfaff said. “They didn’t believe there was anything wrong, and they didn’t think they were breaking the rules.”

But Rogers stands by e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to smoking.

After smoking traditional cigarettes for most of her life, Rogers switched to e-cigarettes and said “vaping” has made her feel better.

“You notice a difference in just a few days,” Rogers said. “I believe there is a positive effect.”

‘Doing all we

can’

A lot of the time, her customers are smokers looking for a way to cut back on their cigarette use. The same thing goes for 18-year-olds who visit her store, she said.

She said she believes that traditional cigarettes are still easier to come by than their electronic counterparts, and teens are picking up their smoking habits before switching to vaping.

Indiana is one of a handful of states that has made e-cigarette sales to minors illegal, but that doesn’t mean the products aren’t making their way into teen’s hands, Rogers said.

Unlike at a liquor store, which prohibits underage patrons, parents are allowed to bring their children into Vapor Lock. Rogers said she suspects sometimes parents visit the store to purchase an e-cigarette on their teen’s behalf.

If the intent to purchase for a child is clear, Rogers said, she will refuse to sell to the item to the adult. However, she can’t prevent all e-cigarettes from changing hands once the family leaves her store.

“We’re doing all we can (to keep minors from getting e-cigarettes), but we can’t stop someone from buying it and giving it to a kid,” she said.

Lack of sales regulations also means e-cigarettes easily can be found online, Bastin said.

Officials with the CDC and FDA believe more strict regulations for e-cigarettes will discourage teens from using them. The organizations intend to roll out legislative agendas that would do just that, a news release stated.

In Indiana, several pieces of legislation regulating e-liquid sales and requiring e-cigarettes to be sold in childproof packages already have been proposed at the Statehouse.

Bastin and others opposed to e-cigarette use are waiting for those bills to become law.

“Kids see the glamorous images in cigarette advertisements but not the oxygen tanks, cancer and reduced income,” Bastin said. “The best way to quit (smoking) is not to start.”

Monitored methods

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate recreational e-cigarette use. The FDA regulates:

  • Cigarettes
  • Cigarette tobacco
  • Roll-your-own tobacco
  • Smokeless tobacco, also called chewing tobacco
  • Electronic cigarettes used for therapeutic purposes

Teens & tobacco

Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse surveys local teens each year about their tobacco use. These are the most recent results:

Class of 2017

  • 7 percent used cigarettes regularly in 2013.
  • 2.9 percent used smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco regularly in 2013.
  • 1.7 percent used cigars regularly in 2013.
  • 3.6 percent used pipes regularly in 2013.

Class of 2015

  • 14.9 percent used cigarettes regularly in 2013.
  • 6.4 percent used smoke-free tobacco or chewing tobacco regularly in 2013.
  • 7.5 percent used cigars regularly in 2013.
  • 7.9 percent used pipes regularly in 2013.

Electronic alternative

National e-cigarette use:

  • 13.4 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes regularly in 2014.
  • 4.5 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes regularly in 2013.
  • 3.9 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes regularly in 2014.
  • 1.1 percent of middle school students in the United States used e-cigarettes regularly in 2013.

Source: Study conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products

The law

In May 2013, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation prohibiting the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Individuals younger than 18 who purchase, accept for personal use or possess an electronic cigarette face a Class C infraction.

At the Statehouse

A number of bills regulating e-cigarettes are making their way through the Indiana General Assembly. Here’s a look at where things stand:

Cigarette and tobacco sales

Bill number: SB 463

Summary: Prohibits the sale of an electronic cigarette without a valid tobacco sales certificate issued by the alcohol and tobacco commission. Prohibits the manufacture, sale or distribution of e-liquid unless the product is contained in child-resistant packaging. Permits smoking in certain cigar stores and bars.

Status: Bill passed the Senate 42-7 in February and passed the House 84-11 in April. Bill was sent back to Senate with amendments. A motion was filed to dissent with House amendments. No further action this week.

Regulation of e-liquids

Bill number: HB 1432

Summary: Defines e-liquid as “a substance that is intended to be vaporized and inhaled using a vapor pen.” Requires e-liquid manufacturers to have a permit from the alcohol and tobacco commission. Prohibits the sale of e-liquid to minors.

Status: Bill passed by the full House 85-9 in February and passed the full Senate 33-15 in April. Bill was sent back to the House with amendments. House voted to concur with Senate amendments, 73-14. Signed this week by Speaker Brian Bosma and President Pro Tempore David Long.

Source: Indiana General Assembly at iga.in.gov

Pull Quote

“Kids see the glamorous images in cigarette advertisements but not the oxygen tanks, cancer and reduced income,”

Brandee Bastin, coordinator for the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition, on increased use of electronic cigarettes by teenagers

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.