2015-05-13 / News

Heating up: Rise of ‘vapors’ worries antismoking advocates

By Peter Galuszka

Sitting in his white Nissan Sentra just outside of Avail Vapor on Hull Street Road in western Chesterfield, Brett Hadden refills his electronic cigarette with new flavors he has just bought. “I like White Moose best,” he says.

He also fits the profile of many who use vaping devices – he’s 19 years old, a recent high school graduate and enjoys the pleasing rush of nicotine while avoiding the deadly tar and other carcinogens in traditional cigarettes.

Hadden, a fast-food worker, says he had been smoking for two years, “but I made vaping my New Year’s resolution.” He feels healthier and can now run without wheezing.

Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity. A number of new stores in the county are offering wide assortments of e-cigarette starter kits, which include nicotine “juice” in a multitude of flavors, for about $45. Avail, which has grown quickly to more than 45 stores in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland, got its start in Richmond’s Carytown but moved its headquarters to Midlothian, in the Southport Office Park, last year.

Not to be left out, Richmond-based Altria and its subsidiary, Philip Morris USA, makers of the country’s most popular traditional cigarette brand, Marlboro, last year released their MarkTen disposable e-cigarette, which is cheaper than the reusable types for sale at stores like Avail. By January, the tobacco giant was selling MarkTens in 133,000 outlets nationally.

The chief attraction of e-cigarettes is nicotine, a highly addictive substance that for centuries has drawn people to smoke tobacco. By separating burning tobacco, with its deadly byproducts, from the pleasurable nicotine experience, electronic cigarettes may help spare the lives of some of the 480,000 Americans who die each year of smoking-related illnesses.

E-cigarettes, which emit an odorless vapor, got their start about a decade ago with small independent manufacturers mostly in Asia but have since taken off so quickly that some analysts predict they will overtake traditional cigarette smoking within a decade.

The bad news is that nicotine is still addictive and in certain cases can be deadly if a young child ingests large amounts. Nicotine also can cause brain damage in teenagers and young adults, experts say.

That is why a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in mid-April garnered national attention. When it sampled 22,000 middle and high school students, it showed that the number who had used electronic cigarettes had tripled from 2013 to 2014. Of the sample, the number of those who smoked traditional cigarettes dropped. In Virginia, as in most states, it is illegal to sell electronic cigarettes to anyone younger than the age of 18.

In the report, Tom Freiden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the results showed “a really bad thing” because young people, especially middle schoolers, are increasingly getting hooked on addictive nicotine. Other antismoking groups, such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in Washington, D.C., worries that by making vaping seem cool, it will hook impressionable young people who might later be inclined to start smoking traditional cigarettes.

Another problem is how hot vapers set their devices. A report by researchers at Portland State University and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that if users of e-cigarettes use low heat settings, they should be safe.

But if they are chronic users of high heat settings on their devices, formaldehyde could be released, increasing the risk of cancer by five to 15 times, the report says. There are also questions about the quality of the devices themselves. Many are put together by small, independent factories in Asia where production standards may be dodgy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue new regulations about electronic cigarettes soon.

Virginia gets low rankings for preventing the use of far more harmful traditional cigarettes. In a recent report, the American Lung Association gave Virginia “Fs” for tobacco prevention, smoke-free air, tobacco taxes and access to smoking cessation services. The state’s 30 cents per pack tax is the second lowest in the country. While the state gets about $295 million in tobacco revenue, it spends only 12.2 percent, or about $91.6 million, on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

At the Avail store, young men browse through the display cases of devices, kits and scores of different flavors. The store motif is fresh, modern and seems designed to be hip.

Assistant manager Tom Armstrong says business has been brisk since the store opened about six months ago. “We’re really doing well,” he says, noting that several other competing stores have recently opened along the Hull Street Road corridor. The area’s first vaping shop, Vapors Lounge, opened on Midlothian Turnpike in 2008.

Armstrong says that minors should not vape or use nicotine. “We’re strict about that,” he says. “We card a lot of people.”

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