SPRINGFIELD, Mo. National health officials claim teenage use of e-cigarettes has reached epidemic proportions. And the Food and Drug Administration is now threatening to take their flavored products off the market if the industry does not take steps in the next 60 days to reduce underage use.
When electronic cigarettes hit the market in 2004, they were seen as a positive alternative to tobacco smoking. But in addressing one health problem, cigarette smoking, which kills 480,000 Americans each year, another problem was created. Hooking teenagers, who had never smoked cigarettes, on nicotine.
"Nicotine can be harmful to the still-developing brain of an adolescent," said Mitchell Zeller, the Director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products. "And nicotine is addictive."
Today more middle-and- high school students (over two million) are vaping than smoking tobacco cigarettes. And even though it's against the law to sell e-cigarette products to anyone under 18 in Springfield, vaping has gained the same kind of coolness factor as other vices like regular tobacco and alcohol.
"If someone likes it and they think it's cool and a trend, most people will probably follow suit," said Alex Vilmer, the manager of Springfield's Vapor World on Glenstone when answering in the affirmative about the way "vaping" has grown in popularity over the past decade.
The FDA is wanting the industry to address two major areas when it comes to discouraging minors. Requiring proper ID's and not branding their flavored products to make them look like candy or juice boxes.
At a Senate hearing on the matter, California senator Barbara Boxer grilled industry leaders about their packaging.
"You sell your products in cherry crush and vanilla flavors," she pointed out. "How can you sit here and say that you're not marketing to children?"
"Senator, that's a good question," said Jason Healy, the founder and president of Blu E-Cigarettes.
"What's the answer?" she replied.
"No, I am not," Healy responded.
"The first step-back, take-a-look at ourselves major incident was packaging, Vilmer recalled. "It was like, 'what are you doing here?' Candy and bubble gum. I feel that all of them should be packaged like a more clean, adult-oriented packaging because that's what it is. An adult product."
While the FDA's threatened ban of flavored products won't shut down vape stores, it would leave them with only tobacco and menthol-flavored alternatives which they say would defeat the original purpose of their flavored products--to help people stop smoking cigarettes.
"Not a lot of people want to go to a tobacco flavor coming off tobacco," Villmer said with a smile. "For myself the reason I got into this industry was harm reduction. I smoked for 15 years. (He uses e-cigarettes) not so much as a cure-all, be-all, 100-percent healthy product. But definitely a harm reduction product."
The FDA has warned both makers and sellers of e-cigarettes about it's intentions, sending letters to some 1,100 retailers including 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Circle-K and Shell gas stations warning that the products need to be kept away from minors.