Health

Saturday, Jan 11 2014 09:00 PM

More e-cigarette stores open as health debate rages on

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ted Sisco, owner of Ted's Vapor Hut, demonstrates how he exhales vapor instead of smoke while using an e-cigarette at his shop on F Street.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    As Ted Sisco exhales from an e-cigarette, the vapor momentarily hangs in the air of the lounge of Ted's Vapor Hut on F Street before it quickly dissipates. The product delivers vaporized nicotine as well as e-juices.

    click to expand click to collapse
  3. 3 of 4

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ted Sisco, owner of Ted's Vapor Hut, demonstrates how he exhales vapor instead of smoke while using an e-cigarette at his shop on F Street.

    click to expand click to collapse
  4. 4 of 4

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ted Sisco, owner of Ted's Vapor Hut, holds an E-cigarette that he sells in his shop.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Monica and David Nicolls took up cigarettes as teenagers and, despite numerous attempts to quit, continued the habit into their 30s.

The couple smoked even after David conquered testicular cancer and his step daughter survived cancer in her kidneys.

"We tried to smoke outside to protect my daughter, but everyone knows on cold days or those 110 days it creeps inside," said Monica, 35, of Bakersfield. "To be smoking around her, that was insane. It's crazy how addicting smoking can be."

Monica is giving quitting another try, and this time she's confident it will stick because she has a new weapon in her arsenal, electronic cigarettes.

"I haven't smoked in almost six months," she boasted as a thin, white stream of vapor spiraled from a device she held between her fingers. "My house doesn't stink anymore, and my hands are normal, see? My fingers and nails had turned brown."

A so-called smokeless cigarette was patented as early as the 1960s, but the electronic cigarettes in wide use today are the brainchild of a pharmacist who introduced them in China in 2003.

Called e-cigarettes or e-cigs for short, they are battery-powered, tubular devices that deliver vaporized nicotine for inhalation. The liquid that is vaporized, dubbed e-juice, is available in a stunning array of scents and flavors, and comes with various levels of nicotine or no nicotine.

The idea is that users can start off with the highest level and then gradually diminish until they don't crave it anymore.

Manufacturers and sellers tout e-cigarettes as a cheaper, healthier alternative to tobacco that helps smokers quit.

Skeptics say those claims are unproven, at best, and want e-cigarettes to be treated no differently than traditional cigarettes under the law.

There aren't any definitive studies on the long-term effects of vaping (as opposed to smoking) or its effectiveness in smoking cessation because it's so new, but e-cigarettes generally make health care providers nervous. That's because while there are far fewer toxins in e-juice than tobacco smoke, it is not toxin-free.

Among the chemicals inhaled while vaping is formaldehyde, which is a cancer causing agent, said Dr. Ravi Patel, medical director of the Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center in Bakersfield.

"Given the literally billions of dollars spent on cancer treatment in the United States each year, particularly lung cancer, it's better to invest in prevention and convince people not to use either of them," he said.

In October, California Attorney General Kamala Harris was among 40 attorneys general who signed a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging it to regulate vaping products.

The American Lung Association is lobbying for oversight, too.

"People need to know that right now the FDA has no authority over e-cigarettes," said the association's assistant vice president of national advocacy, Erika Sward. "There are over 250 brands being sold in the U.S. and we don't know what's in them or what their impact on public health may be."

At the moment, the only applicable state law on e-cigarettes is one that bans their sale to minors. There are no Bakersfield ordinances governing their use in restaurants or zoning rules that dictate where vaping stores can be located or advertised. The city treats the stores as they would any other retailer.

In the last two months alone, two new stores have opened in Bakersfield that exclusively sell e-cigarettes: Ted's Vapor Hut downtown and Vapor Supply Co. in the southwest. They're also sold alongside tobacco products at other stores.

E-cigarettes are subject to state sales and use taxes but not the additional taxes applied to tobacco products that pay for smoking cessation programs.

Some states are making noises about changing that, but so far California isn't one of them.

Jamie Henderson is executive director of First 5 Kern, an education, health and social services program paid for with revenue from Proposition 10, a 1998 tobacco tax initiative.

Henderson said it's for the legislature to decide if e-cigarettes should be taxed. He's personally more concerned about health ramifications than money.

"After years of smoking rates going down, with all the gains we've made, we're worried that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to people smoking," he said. "Somebody using e-cigarettes could be tempted to go to regular cigarettes."

It's a refrain champions of e-cigarettes have heard many times. Vapor Supply Co. owner Ryan Atchison doesn't buy it.

"Most of the non-smokers who buy e-cigarettes buy zero nicotine," he said. "I can't see someone not using nicotine starting. It's not a gateway."

Atchison added that he gives discounts to new customers who hand over a pack of cigarettes and vow to quit.

Critics counter that the marketing of the product says it all and point to child-friendly flavors such as bubble gum and cotton candy.

"It's the same old tobacco industry play book," said the American Lung Association's Sward.

Last, September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.

Its National Youth Tobacco Survey said the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012 while the percentage who said they used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days went up from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.

The report said use also doubled among middle schoolers.

CDC Director Tom Frieden called the numbers "deeply troubling" given the addictiveness of nicotine.

"Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes," he said in a news release.

Mike Bond, owner of Bakersfield-based e-cigarette distributor Smoke Out Solutions, said the industry doesn't target children, and it's silly to read too much into the flavor options.

"Vodka comes in whipped cream and birthday cake flavors," he said. "Tell me a grown man who doesn't enjoy candy? I'm sorry that we share the same taste buds as children, but it tastes good."

Ted Sisco, owner of Ted's Vapor Hut on F Street, said he believes the industry needs to make flavors appealing in order to entice smokers away from tobacco, but he insisted e-cigarette sellers overwhelmingly want to protect children.

"I have three kids myself, and if my teenager came home with one of these I'd be knocking on the shop's door," Sisco said, adding that he started selling e-cigarettes after using them to quit smoking after 20 years, and he wants others to quit, too.

"I have customers who were three-pack-a-day smokers who come in here in tears to hug me and thank me because they finally quit," he said. "It's very rewarding."

Justin James, 37, of Bakersfield, hasn't smoked in six months and credits e-cigarettes with helping him kick the habit.

"I tried the nicotine patches and I was just miserable," he said. "I could feel the nicotine so I was constantly thinking about it, but I didn't have anything to do with my hands, you know, the whole habit of it."

James said since he started vaping he has more energy, can taste food again and can breathe easier, literally and figuratively.

He doesn't plan to stop at giving up tobacco, either. "The goal is to stop vaping, too," he said.

Monica, the wife and mother to cancer survivors, said she's so pleased with her results that she convinced her husband to start vaping, too.

She'll probably always vape because she finds the experience pleasant, she said, but she's working her way down to the zero nicotine juice and wants her husband to follow suit.

"I know that this is much safer for us," Monica said.

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