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Apodaca: Clearing the air about electronic cigarettes

March 14, 2014|By Patrice Apodaca

An alarming trend is rapidly emerging, fed by a smoke screen of misinformation, clever marketing ploys and widespread ignorance.

I'm referring to the growing use of electronic cigarettes by kids, a development that has health officials, educators and policy makers scrambling to catch up. One of their biggest tasks is to inform unwitting parents about the potential dangers of these insidious products and the possibility that their children might already be experimenting with them.

It's a tough battle, given the significant head start by makers and merchants of e-cigarettes. Although state law prohibits sales to kids, this emerging industry has become expert at targeting young people with slick advertising, links to technology and personalized products. The business has also benefited from a regulatory structure that has struggled to stay abreast of the fast-changing landscape.

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It also doesn't help that some celebrities have given e-cigarettes lots of free publicity by touting them as a safe and easy way to kick the regular cigarette habit, a blithe championing of unfounded industry claims.

"We're running the risk of getting young people hooked on these products at an early age," said Stacy Deeble-Reynolds, a prevention coordinator at the Orange County Department of Education.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look like pens — they're sometimes called hookah pens — and give off vapor from heated liquid. Despite their benign appearance, they resemble regular cigarettes in that they're basically delivery systems for nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals.

However, because their production is largely unregulated, e-cigarettes vary widely in dosage, and even those products touted as nicotine-free might contain traces of the drug.

Despite industry claims, there is no proof that the vapor from e-cigarettes is safe or that the electronic products can help people stop smoking. Indeed, experts are increasingly concerned that they might actually encourage new users to try smoking regular cigarettes and former smokers to relapse.

Because the products are so new, no independent longitudinal studies are available yet to demonstrate the long-term effects of e-cigarette use, said Dr. Helene Calvet, deputy health officer at the Orange County Health Care Agency.

"Up until now, most of what people are hearing has been what the industry has been saying," she said.

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