published Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Health, taxation concerns envelop fast-growing e-cigarette industry

Turner Ams, vapor technician at the Vapor Tonics shop in Chattanooga, uses an electronic cigarette behind the store counter Friday. A new bill is seeking to establish that electronic cigarettes are not tobacco products.
Turner Ams, vapor technician at the Vapor Tonics shop in Chattanooga, uses an electronic cigarette behind the store counter Friday. A new bill is seeking to establish that electronic cigarettes are not tobacco products.
Photo by Maura Friedman.
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Would you try an e-cigarette?
  • photo
    Electronic cigarette cartridges sit on display at Vapor Tonics on Friday in Chattanooga. A new bill is seeking to establish that electronic cigarettes are not tobacco products.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

E-CIG PRIMER

Vapor, not smoke: Vaporizers, also known as e-cigarettes, do not produce a combustible "smoke" like traditional cigarettes, nor do they contain tar. Rather, they contain a small battery that converts a liquid from small cartridges into a water-based vapor. The health effects of the vapor are still unclear, officials say.

Outside: They come in many forms, but most often look like a plastic or glass cigarette or pen-sized cylinder.

Inside: The juice in the liquid cartridges contain a range of flavorings, along with various amounts of tobacco-based nicotine, synthetic nicotine, or no nicotine at all. They may also contain chemicals such as propylene glycol, acetaldehyde, acrolein, formaldehyde and tobacco-specific nitrosamines.

Cost: The juices typically cost around $6 each and last about a week, depending on the user.

Sources: World Health Organzation, Vapor Tonics, National Conference of State Legislatures, Tennessee Health Department, Times Free Press archives

Turner Ams does not like being called a smoker.

He used the label to describe himself a few years ago, when he was draining at least a pack of cigarettes a day.

But not now. As he puffs white clouds of vapor inside a small shop filled with vials of liquid with labels like "Italian Cappuccino," "Cinnamon Swirl" and "Mystery Tobacco," he says his current pastime is far different from the old habit he now detests.

Vaping -- or inhaling from an e-cigarette -- has all the trappings of smoking, he explains. Minus the smoke.

"People tend to lump them together," said Ams, a vapor technician at Vapor Tonics, a store specializing in custom-flavored e-cigarettes in downtown Chattanooga. "But they are very different. I feel much better, much healthier than I did when I smoked."

One bill attempted during this session in the Tennessee General Assembly sought to make the very distinction Ams labors to explain: That vapor products are not tobacco products, and that using a vapor product is not smoking.

Such a distinction, the bill's sponsors say, could mean that vapor products could not be taxed like cigarettes.

It could also mean that people could use an e-cigarette inside areas where smoking has been banned -- like state-owned buildings and restaurants -- unless such private establishments wanted to ban it themselves.

The bill has been put on hold until next year's session, its sponsors say. But it has sparked buzz among state health groups and proponents of a rapidly-growing industry, and raised debate about a practice that remains, well, foggy in terms of health information and regulation.

"I felt it was important to define because many people use these as a way to quit smoking," said Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, who sponsored the House version of the bill along with Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville.

"Although there are those who disagree with it, I know people have been able to quit smoking or reduce smoking because of these."

They bill has made anti-smoking advocates uneasy. They say there are still too many questions about the safety of e-cigarettes, and that such a law could erode barriers designed to discourage smoking and protect people from secondhand smoke.

"It has the potential to evade smoke-free workplace regulations and may also pre-empt local governments from passing ordinances to prohibit the use of them," said Kevin Lusk, chairman of the Tobacco Free Chattanooga coalition.

E-cigarettes, also known as vaporizers, are plastic or glass cigarette-like tubes that contain a liquid cartridge and a small battery.

The battery creates a vapor from a juice in the cartridge, which contains flavoring mixed with propylene glycol -- a commonly used liquid for food and cosmetic additives -- and other varying chemicals, along with tobacco-based nicotine, synthetic nicotine or no nicotine at all.

E-cigs do not produce a combustible "smoke" like lit cigarettes, and they do not contain tar.

But research studies on the health effects of the vapor produced by e-cigs have largely been inconclusive or contradictory, leaving health groups divided over whether the product is a good alternative to tobacco, or whether it's trading one harmful habit for another.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that while "e-cigarettes appear to have far fewer of the toxins found in smoke compared to traditional cigarettes, the impact of e-cigarettes on long-term health must be studied."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration so far does not regulate e-cigarettes, leaving the industry plenty of room to grow quickly.

E-cigs are cheaper than regular cigarettes, with one $6 refill cartridge often lasting a week.

Sales have doubled each year since 2007, according to USA Today. The rise in the popularity of e-cigs also comes as bans on smoking continue to shrink the areas where smoking is allowed.

As vaporizers gain popularity, some state and local governments are taking action to regulate these products either similarly to other tobacco products, or as different products altogether.

As of January, 108 municipalities and three states included e-cigarettes as products that are prohibited from use in smoke-free environments, according to the nonprofit Americans for Non-smokers Rights.

Alabama, however, has defined e-cigs as alternative nicotine products, not lumping them in with tobacco.

On Friday, the Georgia State Legislature voted to ban minors from buying e-cigarettes. Tennessee passed a similar law last year.

Such age restrictions are a good thing, say the staff at Vapor Tonics, which refused to sell to minors even before the law was passed.

While the shop is located right by the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, most of its clientele are workers at nearby downtown businesses -- like one older woman who popped into the store Friday morning to buy some refills of peanut butter-flavored juice.

Ben Connally, manager of Vapor Tonics, says the devices have helped many people quit smoking. Nearly all of those who come into his shop on Vine Street are former smokers.

COUNTY RESTRICTS E-CIG USE

Citing uncertainty about potential harm from second-hand vapor from e-cigarettes, Hamilton County Commissioners voted last week to ban such devices from county common areas, hallways, meeting rooms, offices, restrooms and county vehicles.

Additionally, the new policy included water pipes, bidis, kreteks, smokeless tobacco and snuff as well.

The change was proposed by the county's human resources department.

  • photo
    Ben Connally, a manger at Vapor Tonics, talks to a Times Free Press reporter at the store Friday. A new bill is seeking to establish that electronic cigarettes are not tobacco products.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

He says he and other shop owners are passionate about sharing how e-cigarettes have changed their lives, and that "vaping" has a connoisseur culture of its own. Of the 11 vapor shops in Chattanooga, Connally says over half have opened within the last year.

To him, the section of the proposed bill that bans a tobacco tax is the most important part.

Currently, e-cigs are subject only to sales tax.

"It sets a great precedent," said Connally. "That's one of the biggest concerns with store owners. It would be very disappointing and would harm the vapor culture."

"Currently our Department of Revenue was not applying the cigarette tax to e-cigarettes, but you don't know if new people in the department will decide to change that. We simply wanted to clarify that these aren't tobacco," Overbey said.

Health officials, though, say removing room for such a tax "eliminates one of the most effective policy interventions to reduce tobacco use."

"We think they should be taxed the same way as tobacco," said Lusk.

The lawmakers who sponsored the legislation also said that the parts of the bill that addressed smoking inside were meant to leave that decision in the hands of property owners.

"It's my intent that the property owner should be able to say 'Yes you can use e-cigarettes here,' or to treat them like traditional cigarettes," said Overbey.

McDaniel said he has few qualms about possible concerns about secondhand vapor.

"It's not a traditional cigarette by any stretch," McDaniel said. "Since there's no harm from it, as far as I'm concerned I think it should be OK to use them inside."

But state health officials have been quick to warn that there is potential harm.

"There are still a lot of health risks," Lusk said. "For some people it may be an alternative. But there hasn't been much research that smoking e-cigs leads to smoking cessation. Come 30 years later, there may be some problem with vaping that's just as damaging as cigarettes are today."

In February, the Tennessee Health Department issued a health advisory on e-cigs, warning that there is "inadequate scientific information" about the effects of using e-cigs. The department also stressed that there are currently no state or federal regulations defining how the products are manufactured, meaning it may be unclear what chemicals each e-cig juice contains.

"With a quarter of Tennessee's adult population smoking, and one in five of its youth, we think it's important that people understand the points we've raised in this advisory," said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner in a statement.

"The science is not settled. We believe people need to be cautious and understand these emissions are not only water and children should not be exposed."

McDaniel and Overbey say they plan to carry the bill forward next year, and advocates on both sides say they will be keeping close tabs on it. E-cig proponents say they expect the product's popularity to only grow, while health officials say they hope the FDA issues some kind of clarification soon.

"There's going to be a lot of talk about this over the next year," said Lusk, "so we will have to keep watching it."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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