E-Cigarettes, Now Booming in Popularity with Erie High Schoolers - WICU12 HD WSEE Erie, PA News, Sports, Weather, Events

E-Cigarettes, Now Booming in Popularity with Erie High Schoolers

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E-cigs growing in popularity with minors E-cigs growing in popularity with minors
Electronic cigarettes were originally created as a smoking cessation device. But now the still-unregulated product has become hugely popular with high school students, right here in Erie.

The product doesn't fall under the Tobacco Act, and without specific laws to address e-cigs in Pennsylvania, private vendors aren't required to ID minors.

"The e-cigs, they’re very popular among the students," said Karl, a Cathedral Prep senior who declined to share his last name.

"Everyone's trying to get them. It’s a big hype in high school and a lot of grade school students are doing it too," said Santino Forti, a Mercyhurst Prep senior. When asked to estimate a percentage of students who use e-cigs, "In our school? I’d say 50 percent, at least," he said.  

The trend is catching on fast among high school students and younger. According to the most recent CDC report, teen use doubled from 2011 to 2012, making for a total of more than 2 million kids vaping e-cigs.

The battery operated device uses a heated coil to vaporize liquid with added nicotine, which is often infused with fruit or candy flavors.

Students say there is a certain appeal.

"A lot of kids are doing it now, I think it's just to be cool," said Vailey Witherspoon, another Mercyhurst Prep senior.

"The aesthetic allure is you know, people love the idea of smoke. Breathing out smoke, it looks cool. The electronic cigarette is a way for kids to blow smoke out of their mouths without feel like they’re crippling their lungs and killing themselves," said Sean Taylor, a Cathedral Prep senior.

Many of the students WICU/WSEE spoke with shared the "healthier than cigarettes" belief. Doctors do agree, but say there's still cause for concern with the electronic tobacco alternative.

"It’s probably safer than a regular cigarette, because a cigarette has thousands of chemicals, 70 of which we know cause cancer. We’ve only found a few so far in e-cigs that cause cancer, but we haven’t been able to adequately study them," said Dr. Stephen Kovacs, a Saint Vincent Pulmonologist.

Studies have shown that some e-cigarettes, particularly with the larger devices, the heating mechanism inside can vaporize liquids at high enough temperatures to release formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

But a more immediate and widespread concern - the vaping trend among students is causing kids not previously addicted to nicotine, to now be hooked on e-cigs.

"It concerns me as a parent and as a physician. The issue really with this is the addiction," Dr. Kovacs said. "Addiction is never a good thing."

The unregulated industry also means there's no quality control or product standard required for the chemicals that are vaporized, then inhaled. It's another cause for concern, particularly because the kids using them are still developing. 

"At the present time, the FDA does not have the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, and some have characterized it frankly, as the wild, wild, west," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg in a press conference, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. "At this point, it's very much buyer beware," she said.

"Anything in your lungs other than air is usually bad. We don’t know what are in these liquids and we don’t know what problems they're going to hold," Dr. Kovacs said.

Clinical studies and FDA regulations are both in the works for e-cigarettes. Legislation in Pennsylvania that would ban sales to minors is pending as well. But meanwhile, even kids younger than 18 can buy e-cigs from certain smoke shops and specialty vendors in Erie

"I would definitely say there’s peer pressure," Karl said. "Whenever there’s a new item, everyone wants to get one and everyone wants to fit in, and even if it’s an unhealthy trend," he said.

"Kids do it in class, like when the teacher isn't looking," Fonti said. "Fairview School District has way more than we do, but I would say just about any school has them, and there's going to be a high number of students using them," he said.

School administrations have started to take notice.

"It’s a very furtive kind of device. There’s no smoke, there’s no odor. There was suspicion that it might be infiltrating students. We want to make sure that our policies clearly let them know what our expectations are," said Paul Cancilla, assistant principal at Mercyhurst Prep.

The school specified rules banning e-cigs on school grounds, just last month.

“With this gap in regulation, the wheels of commerce are spinning a whole lot more quickly than the wheels of legislation," Cancilla said.  "There's a generation of kids falling to nicotine addiction that were not already heading in that direction. It must be addressed, it shouldn’t be glamorized, and it shouldn’t be legal for minors to have these devices," he said.

Students at Mercyhurst Prep view the crackdown as a good thing.

"The faculty basically needs to show us students that you need to do things more correctly and more healthy for yourself," Forti said.

It could be a year before FDA regulations are in place for e-cigarettes.

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