In Grand Forks smokers are turning to e-cigs to help them quit; health experts are skeptical
When Jon Larkin, a 23-year-old UND student, started smoking occasionally a few years ago, he never thought he’d be hooked.
“Once I hit three or four years of doing it I realized I needed to do something about it,” he said.
That’s when he switched to electronic cigarettes in hopes that it would help him quit, he said. “It’s not the same as a cigarette but it’s similar enough that it works for me.”
The cigarette-like devices vaporize a nicotine-infused liquid that is then inhaled and the amount of nicotine can vary with the e-liquid used, making them an increasingly popular option for smokers looking to quit.
“I started at a little bit higher level and moved down slowly. It’s easier than going cold turkey,” Larkin said.
Most people that buy e-cigs from SnG Vapor, a “vapor shop” in Grand Forks, are people hoping to quit, according to Casey Wenstad, one of the owners. “Everyone’s eyes are going to thinking about what the science of all of this is. We think it’s a safe alternative to people who want to get off nicotine. I have quite a few customers who start at the normal nicotine level of a cigarette and have dropped down to zero.”
Public health experts are skeptical because there isn’t yet enough scientific evidence that indicate e-cigs are effective aids to quitting, and they worry about what’s in the liquid, which aren’t regulated.
To their chagrin, the dessert-like flavors that the e-liquid comes in and the attractive design of the e-cigs themselves may be enticing more young people to smoke.
While cigarettes containing tobacco leaves offer just a few options — light, regular, menthol and/or filtered — there is a world of variety in e-cigs.
Some are cheap disposable devices commonly sold at gas stations. Some have colorful comic-book designs or intricate carvings costing several hundred dollars. E-liquids also offer variety, with flavors ranging from cherry to apple to blueberry cheesecake to chocolate hazelnut.
But more than offering variety, e-cigs are touted by celebrities as a new must-have accessory. A recent Huffington Post story noted their use by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jenny McCarthy, Stephen Dorff and Bruno Mars. McCarthy and Dorff now endorse an e-cig brand and Mars is an investor in another.
But, because they’ve grown in popularity only very recently, e-cigs have not been subjected to the kinds of federal regulations that tobacco cigarettes have been.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only last month said it would begin regulating e-cigarettes, but so far, they are not FDA approved, according to Haley Thorson, Grand Forks Public Health’s tobacco prevention coordinator.
“There isn’t enough evidence to say that they are safe,” she said. “Some contain substances such as nicotine and harsh metals. All we have to go off of right now is the preliminary data. There’s no sort of industry standard so there could be varying amounts of these ingredients.”
For quitting smoking, Thorson said she doesn’t think e-cigs are the best choice. “There’s not enough scientific evidence that says these help people stop using nicotine.”
Quitting aids approved by the FDA include nicotine patches and gum and some prescription medications.
Larkin said he’ll stick to e-cigs for now. “I’m not a scientist or a doctor so I wouldn’t say that it’s a healthier alternative but my lungs feel better and I didn’t have bronchitis or a cough this year. I’ve found for me, it’s a better alternative.”
“In my eyes, it’s better than smoking a cigarette,” said Wenstad, “there are three to six thousand chemicals in a regular cigarette. Ours here at SnG only have three or four. I hope that people switch over. I mean, I know what’s actually in this. There are no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it.”
Others see e-cigs as a more socially-acceptable alternative to cigarettes.
“E-cigs are a lot cheaper and they don’t stink. I used to smoke cigarettes but I would pick (e-cigs) over regular cigarettes any day,” Joey Fisher, a 22-year-old UND student, who is also using e-cigs to quit. “Plus, they are better for the people around me,” he said referencing the perceived lack of harmful second-hand smoke from e-cigarettes.
Still, some consumers are heeding the caution from public health experts like Thorson.
Drew Grinde, a 22-year-old UND student, said he used to use e-cigs but have abandoned the habit out of fear.
“Until they’re FDA regulated, I want nothing to do with them,” he said. “Right now anyone can make the juice in their garage and sell it.”
For now, the bigger concern public health experts have with e-cigs is the effect on children.
“There’s less restriction on the way they’re marketed,” Thorson said. “They can be televised, there’s flavors, and we’re seeing that they’re coming out with different types that are adorned with jewels and cartoon characters. I’m actually looking at one on my computer right now of a bejeweled e-cig with Hello Kitty on it. You think of that market, 6-year-olds love Hello Kitty.”
She said she’s also concerned the popularization of e-cigs by celebrities would make using e-cigs seem acceptable to young people. “Youth initiate tobacco use mainly because of what they see. Creating a norm where tobacco use is acceptable reinforces the behavior.”
E-cigs are already growing in popularity with North Dakota children. The 2013 North Dakota Youth Tobacco Survey found that 13.4 percent of high school students had tried an e-cig. In 2011, a similar survey found only 4.5 percent had tried e-cigs.
“Typically when we see data from year to year, a small increase is normal. But a spike that dramatic in that short period of time is concerning,” said Thorson.
The Grand Forks City Council, at the urging of Thorson and other tobacco opponents, is taking action to reduce the potential of children using e-cigs.
Last week, the council took an initial vote to treat e-cigs exactly like other tobacco products, banning those younger than 18 from buying them. Currently, there is no law that says children can’t buy e-cigs.
“Kids at school weren’t allowed to use e-cigs on school property, but they could walk across the street, wave at the principal and vape away—and law enforcement couldn’t do anything about it,” said City Council member Bret Weber. “I think this change needs to be done nationally, but until then, we’ve taken care of it.”
The council is expected to take a final vote at its meeting at 5:30 tonight at City Hall, which would officially put the ban in the law books joining eight other cities in the state.
At SnG Vapor, Wenstad said he’s all for the law and has already refused to sell e-cigs to children.
“It’s never been regulated for that, but we don’t allow it,” he said. “I consider this an alternative to smoking so in my eyes it’s something children shouldn’t be entitled to. We don’t want to cause damage to any children.”
Weber said he’s convinced the e-cigs industry is simply another face of Big Tobacco. “This is a way to get people addicted to nicotine. They are nicotine delivery devices and they’re being marketed to kids.”