So let’s talk about e-cigarettes. You know, those things people — including a lot of kids — are “vaping” in many of the very places where traditional cigarettes are banned: cafes, restaurants, bars, beaches and workplaces.

They seem to be all around us, from the man in the cloud of smoke at the stoplight to the woman puffing away in the local park. It is one indication that the sellers of e-cigarettes are doing brisk business. Another one is that business is really booming among young people. Across the nation, e-cigs are projected to generate $2.2 billion this year.

Good news, right? After all, they were originally intended, or at least sold, as a device to help people stop smoking cigarettes.

The problem is that the market is expanding in Hawaii in ways that indicate vaping isn’t the pathway toward a smoke-free life that it was cracked up to be.

Lead Crop E-Cig smoker exhales in downtown Honolulu on July 9, 2014.

An e-cigarette-user exhales in downtown Honolulu.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

A study of public and private school students in Hawaii that was recently published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the rate of e-cigarette smoking has tripled in the past two years, with 30 percent of adolescents now vaping; that’s three times the average for mainland adolescents.

The study by Dr. Thomas Wills, which surveyed 1,900 14- and 15-year-olds, also found that 96 percent of teens knew what e-cigs are.

Why might young people who were not interested in traditional cigarettes be drawn to e-cigs? Maybe it has to do with the teen-friendly flavors: bubble gum, cherry, milkshake and vanilla, which are just a few of the 160 different flavors on the market.

Perhaps most troublingly, 17 percent of the teen smokers used e-cigs alone, suggesting a possible disturbing new trend. Teens who don’t fit the usual “smokers profile” are puffing e-cigs as a possible gateway toward, not away from, traditional cigarettes. “This group seems to be rapidly expanding, and the future risks are unknown,” said Dr. Wills in an interview.

Why might young people who were not interested in traditional cigarettes be drawn to e-cigs?

Maybe it has to do with the teen-friendly tobacco offerings: bubble gum, cherry, milkshake and vanilla, which are just a few of the 160 different flavors on the market. They are promoted in television ads, magazines and local stores around the country. They also come in different concentrations, allowing people to select the potency level of the nicotine.

And e-cigarette devices can be bought in stores and online without the strict regulations placed on traditional cigarettes.

So who is behind the booming market in e-cigarettes? The very same companies that have sold traditional ones for decades.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Almost 20 years ago the major cigarette manufacturers were slapped with a $206 billion fine because they knew about the dangers of tobacco and cigarette smoking, but repeatedly lied about it.

The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement funds provided $206 billion dollars to be used for education about the dangers of smoking and programs to help people quit. Hawaii received $1.6 billion of which 60 percent went directly to health-related services. The agreement also eliminated the advertisement, promotion or marketing of tobacco products to young people. Sports sponsorships were banned and, overall, the goals of the settlement seemed largely to have been achieved. Until now.

The very same companies punished for duping the American public about tobacco in the past are the ones that are establishing e-cigarette markets with their own brands. Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris, owns Mark Ten and Green Smoke, two different e-cigs on the market. Blu, one of the most popular brands, is owned by North Carolina-based Lorillard, which is one of the largest tobacco companies. R. J. Reynolds is in the game with its e-cig, Vuse.

In addition to the new money, such companies can find relief from the growing constraints that have been put on them in recent decades. As suggested earlier, e-cigs don’t face anywhere near the same level of regulation and, in some cases, none at all.

The Food and Drug Administration has not taken action on the use of e-cigs like it does for other nicotine replacement devices such as nicotine gum, or patches, which are considered medical devices. E-cigs are still under review through April of 2015, the earliest that new regulations might be put into place.


A sign of the times in a state Capitol elevator.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

As for the promise that e-cigs help people stop smoking traditional cigarettes, neither the American Cancer Society nor the American Lung Association have found any proof that e-cigs help on that front. And now e-cigs are being investigated as a possible gateway toward the creation of a new generation of smokers.

Proponents of e-cigs say they are safer than traditional tobacco, and don’t contain the more than 40 carcinogens that smokers are exposed to in cigarettes. (Nicotine itself is known to be addictive, but the long-term risks have not been clearly established.) Using e-cigs eliminates the risk to innocent bystanders of inhaling the other toxins from tobacco, and has been shown to be less addictive for smokers than traditional cigarettes.

But the medical community isn’t convinced.

The risk is that this socially acceptable new form of smoking will lead to an increase in the use of traditional cigarettes.

The FDA has said that it will take some sort of action. It should, especially given the data in Dr. Will’s study suggesting that a new generation of young people are getting to know tobacco through vaping.

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