By Wesley Brown
He continued for about a year, but not long after his freshman year in college, he tried an electronic cigarette, or e-cig, in search of a less dirty way to satisfy his nicotine cravings during work.
Although the experience was somewhat unsatisfying at first and sent him scrambling for a pack of Marlboro Reds, he gave the look-alike cigarette product a second shot.
Collier said he hasn’t smoked a tobacco cigarette since.
“Nothing is 100 percent,” Collier, 21, said of e-cigs, which delivers nicotine without burning tobacco and produces a vapor, not smoke. “You still get cravings, but it does help you quit smoking.”
Stories such as Collier’s, who once smoked a pack every two days, could soon change.
Five Democratic senators introduced the Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act last month to “prohibit the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens,” according to a press release from the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Though the text of the bill has not been released, Boxer’s staff said in an e-mail that the legislation defines a child as “an individual who is under the age of 18 years.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and, if passed, would permit the Federal Trade Commission to determine what constitutes marketing e-cigarettes to children and allow the agency to work with state attorney generals to enforce the law.
“We cannot risk undoing decades of progress in reducing youth smoking by allowing e-cigarette makers to target our kids,” Boxer said. “This bill will help protect our children from an industry that profits from addiction.”
Once a curiosity at mall kiosks and flea markets, e-cigs are popping up on tobacco shelves, in retail shops and at military exchanges, which began carrying the battery-powered devices last June that simulate traditional cigarettes by converting nicotine-filled liquid cartridges into an inhalable vapor.
Currently, the industry is not subject to federal laws and regulations that apply to traditional cigarettes, including a ban on marketing to youth.
Although e-cigarettes can be legally sold to children and are not subject to age verification laws, many Augusta retailers say they already check IDs and restrict sales to people who are 18 and older.
Scotty Wolkow, owner of Victorious Vapors on Bobby Jones Expressway, said he is supportive of legislation that would regulate electronic cigarette marketing on the same level as traditional tobacco products.
He said, however, his only problem with the bill is its sponsors labeling e-cigs as a “deplorable,” “troubling” and possibly fatal industry that’s attempting to establish a new generation of nicotine addicts.
“They are trying to put a different spin on it,” he said. “That’s not what we are doing. We are trying to help people quit smoking.”
IN THE PAST YEAR, Wolkow said his clientele has quadrupled, increasing from 4,000 customers to more than 17,000. He estimates 80 percent of his sales come from military, college and adult smokers 21 years of age and older looking for a safe alternative to cigarettes.
Collier is one of those customers.
After a year of using e-cigs off and on, Collier is down to vaping 12 milligrams of nicotine. He started at 25 and is expecting to make it to zero, and possibly even quit e-cigs, by next year.
“I don’t want to depend on it forever,” he said.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they tried e-cigarettes in 2012, and a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the percentage of high school students who had tried them had more than doubled in just one year. More than 76 percent of those users said they also smoked conventional cigarettes.
Though Collier conceded the lack of information available on the health effects of e-cigs does concern him, he said legislation prohibiting marketing to older teens might not be completely necessary.
“As far as we know e-cigs are very healthy, a lot more than cigarettes,” he said. “Getting kids into it could be much better for them.”
THE HEALTH IMPLICATIONS of using electronic cigarettes are not yet clear.
The Food and Drug Administration has looked into the product for almost five years, but has only warned that consumers “currently have no way of knowing” if e-cigs are safe for their intended use, or how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled.
Despite claims from some e-cig makers that they do not market their products to children, some Senators say manufacturers have adopted marketing practices similar to those long used by the tobacco industry to market regular cigarettes to youth – including flavoring their products in candy or fruit flavors that appeal to children, and using marketing materials featuring cartoon characters reminiscent of those used to market traditional cigarettes to children in previous decades.
“When it comes to the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens, it’s Joe Camel all over again,” said Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “It is troubling that manufacturers of e-cigarettes – some of whom also make traditional cigarettes – are attempting to establish a new generation of nicotine addicts through aggressive marketing that often uses cartoons and sponsorship of music festivals and sporting events.”
While the bill has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and the American Heart and Lung associations, Wolkow said success of the bill will come down to enforcement.
“If young teens are able to get it on the Internet, then there is no stopping them,” Wolkow said.