Doctors, industry insiders locked in vape debate over youth use
Cool Vapes on McKnight Road is in an average-looking storefront at the foot of Ross Park Mall, sandwiched between a bridal shop and a cellphone outlet.
Inside, the place bustles with customers peering into glass cases full of flavored liquid nicotine with names like Strawberry Cheesecake, Fruity Fun and Crunchberry. Buyers heat the liquids with battery-operated devices and inhale the vapor in a process known as vaping.
The store contains several prominently placed signs warning: “You must be 18 years old to make a purchase.”
Legally, Cool Vapes does not need the signs. Pennsylvania is one of four states without age restrictions for purchasing electronic vaporizers, e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine, according to the American Vaping Association, an industry trade group.
Still, most vape shop owners in Western Pennsylvania maintain a casual agreement not to sell to minors.
“Selling to kids under 18 doesn’t send a good message,” said Cool Vapes owner R.J. Marino. “It’s a personal decision, and I think most vape shop owners agree. But do I have that legal right? Absolutely, at least for now.”
Anthony Fricchione, owner of Villain Vape Shop, which has stores in Lawrenceville, Cheswick and Butler, agreed.
“You would be hard-pressed to go into a vape shop and find an owner selling to teens,” he said. “Our goal is to help people quit smoking. Selling to minors is the last thing we want to deal with — we’re already battling so much.”
One of those battles is Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 40 percent tax on e-cigarettes and vaporizers. On a national level, the Food and Drug Administration might soon classify liquid nicotine as a tobacco product, which members of the vaping industry say will lead to overregulation, hidden costs and red tape that could put them out of business.
“This industry is under consistent attack,” said Greg Conley, president of the AVA. “It’s new technology and confusing to some, so they’d just like to altogether eliminate it. We’re dealing with the toxic legacy of the tobacco industry.”
A recent study by JAMA Pediatrics said teenagers who try vaping or e-cigarettes are more likely to turn to traditional cigarettes for their nicotine fix and become addicted smokers. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Dartmouth University and the University of Oregon surveyed young people from across the country.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study produced similar results and indicated e-cigarette use among middle and high schoolers tripled from 2013 to 2014.
“In many ways, it’s the perfect starter cigarette for teens. It comes in flavors like chocolate or mango,” said Dr. Brian Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health and lead author of the JAMA Pediatrics study. “It’s electronic, it’s cool-looking, and it’s new. The problem is nicotine is one of the most addictive chemicals known to humans. Once you get addicted, you run the risk of needing more in the form of a traditional cigarette.”
Critics believe the e-cigarette industry markets to younger users with sleekly designed vaporizers and flavored juices.
“As a parent of an 8-year-old son, this stuff really scares me,” said Dr. Anil Singh, director of the breathing disorders center at Allegheny General Hospital. “If used in the right way and regulated, I can see some potential benefit for adults trying to quit smoking. But with the flavors and tools, it’s a great way for hooking young people in. I’d say it’s pretty dangerous.”
Bill Godshall, executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, scoffed at the JAMA Pediatrics study. He pointed to a recent CDC study that indicates teen smoking is at an all-time low.
“Cigarette smoking among youths is plummeting every year, but they say vaping is a gateway?” he said. “C’mon. I can’t believe JAMA is pushing this theory.”
As school let out at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill on a recent afternoon, a few students lit cigarettes as they walked down Forward Avenue. Oskar Porter, 15, a sophomore who was not smoking, said it’s not uncommon to see students vaping.
“I think some of the kids do it to be edgy,” he said. “And they can get away with it easier in the bathroom or the back of a classroom.”
Porter said he’s unsure whether vaping is a gateway to cigarettes, as studies suggest.
“I’ve seen plenty of kids who both vape and smoke cigarettes,” he said. “I’m not sure one leads to the other. They’re both pretty common.”
Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].