As a 20-something-year-old student, I’ve endured my share of odd jobs in the pursuit of work experience and a little extra cash. All of these jobs were temporary, fleeting experiments in just how far I would go for a blessed buck. One of the more memorable jobs was a short-lived gig as a “brand ambassador” for an e-cigarette company.
Prior to my training, I only had slight knowledge of the burgeoning world of electronic cigarettes. What I did notice was that a lot of teenagers and young people in their 20’s would come my way.
As it turns out, 10 percent of U.S. high school students tried e-cigarettes in 2012, according to the most recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — more than double the number from the previous year. One could only assume that the percentage has since risen, with new e-cig brands popping up and the products becoming more visible and readily available on the open market.
Most of the youth that approached me during my time working for the e-cigarette company were already smokers and were drawn to the “clean” nature of the devices. They were either trying to quit, or were looking for a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes.
However, the first thing I learned in my job training was that these devices are neither proven cessation tools nor healthier than regular cigarettes. In fact, the chief rule was to avoid making such claims.
If anyone asked, our response was to be: “Unfortunately, I am not able to answer any questions pertaining to your health. That would be better directed at your personal physician.”
To better understand the difference between a regular tobacco cigarette and a vapor cigarette, one has to delve into how vapor cigs work. E-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco. Instead, a battery heats up a liquid and turns it into a vapor. You can get the liquid in a myriad of flavors ranging from classic tobacco to Peach Tea, or even a custom homemade blend. All can be had with varying percentages of nicotine or no nicotine at all.
For Nic Pariarca, 19, vaping wasn’t so much a healthier option as it was a more convenient means of getting his nicotine fix. An avid smoker since he was seventeen, Pariarca made the switch to electronic cigarettes when he turned eighteen. Unlike with traditional cigs, he could smoke virtually anywhere, legally, and didn’t have to puff as much to feel satisfied.
“I was a horrible chain smoker and got up to two packs a day,” said Pariarca, “so I needed a lot of nicotine.”
With just a couple of hits of his e-cig, Pariarca was able to get more than his previous two-pack-a day intake. This allowed him to skip the hassle of chain smoking and go “throughout the day with one [hit] here or one there.”
Recently, Pariarca decided to drop the habit entirely, cold turkey. He tried vaping as a means to wean himself off of cigarettes, but was unsuccessful. In order to rid himself of the e-cigs, he eventually sold them online for $10 each.
Dr. Adedayo Onitilo, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist and chairman of the Wisconsin Cancer Council claims that because traditional cigarette smokers still are addicted to nicotine, many aren’t giving up the habit when they start vaping.
“Instead, they’re using e-cigarettes in places where smoking isn’t allowed,” said
The range of flavors and the ability of users to invent their own has been a key sticking point for e-cigarette opponents, who believe the products are being marketed to kids, which in turn leads to them using the real thing.
Allison Vandeveld is an operations manager at Vapin USA, an e-cigarette company that has a store located in Long Beach. The patrons she sees, said Vandeveld, are typically older, more experienced smokers, not youth.
She believes it’s “far reaching” to argue that the flavoring available in e-cigs makes them a gateway to tobacco for teens.
“They kind of blame the flavoring [as being] attractive [to] teenagers,” said Vandeveld. “But there’s flavored everything. Adults like flavors.”
Twenty-year-old Joshua Jimenez began smoking cigarettes at the age of 12. Jimenez represents what may be the prevailing mixed attitude towards e-cigarettes: he believes that while e-cigs have helped him minimize his smoking habit, they still pose a threat to children.
“I think it’s popular amongst the youth nowadays because of the media and marketing,” Jimenez said. “For a lot of these youth and kids, it’s like a [recreational] thing, [but] for some people it’s a life changer.”
The increased interest from youth is worrisome for many, but does it equate to youth going on to become addicted to cigarette smoking?
Despite the doubling of electronic cigarette use by young people cited in their report, the CDC gives no evidence of non-smoking teens trying tobacco cigarettes after experimenting with e-cigarettes.
According to aCDC press release, “About76.3 percent of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes in the same period.”
That means most of the current use is taking place among adolescents who already smoke conventional cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products.
As public fear of children doomed to a lifetime of nicotine addiction rises, politicians across the country are working to quench that fear.
New York City is the most recent city to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places. And we may see bans on advertising, or on sales to minors in the near future.
Vandeveld of Vapin USA firmly believes in the 18-and-over policy.
“I do think a lot of the stores need to have a rule–18 and over. It’s not a regulated rule right now but all of our stores have that in place,” said Vandeveld. “We just don’t want that image to be put upon us.”
E-cigs are still a fairly new fad and only time will tell of their staying power. In the meantime, only one thing seems certain: people will continue to search for answers, even as their popularity continues to rise.