Pennsylvania is one step closer to banning kids and teens from being able buy and use controversial electronic cigarettes.
A bill that adds electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, and other alternative nicotine products like nicotine gum to the current state law barring the sale and promotion of tobacco products to minors, cleared the Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
"Even though it’s not a quote, unquote nicotine product, it does contain nicotine, which is the addictive part, for the most part, of smoking," said State Sen. Tim Solobay (D-Allegheny), who introduced the bill. "We’re just trying to say that this, like any other type of tobacco product, should be off-limits to those under 18."
Electronic cigarettes have been promoted as safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes because they do not contain tobacco or produce smoke. Instead, liquid nicotine, which is known to be highly addictive, flavors, or other chemicals are heated up through a battery-powered device and vaporized. That vapor is then inhaled by the user.
"Because of the flavors and the novelty of it, kids can act like they’re smoking, but they’re not smoking, but what they’re not realizing is that they’re actually getting the nicotine," Solobay said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a recent survey found the use of electronic cigarettes doubled among middle school students – from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012. For high schoolers, use jumped from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent, year over year.
All told, more than 1.78 million American tried e-cigarettes in 2012, according to the CDC. The survey also found 1 in 5 middle school students who tried e-cigarettes said they never smoked regular cigarettes – an alarming stat, the CDC says.
CDC officials are also concerned nicotine could hinder adolescent brain development and lead to use of traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products.
“E-cigarettes are perceived…particularly by youth, but across many people as less harmful. So the questions we need to think about for youth is: Is this a product that may encourage a non-smoker to start using nicotine? In which case, it becomes more harmful, than if they remained abstinent,” said Dr. Andrew Strasser, who runs the University of Pennsylvania’s Biobehavioral Smoking Laboratory.
"It may be viewed, for some segment of the youth population, as a gateway to using regular cigarettes," he adds.
Strasser and his team have been studying the usage of electronic cigarettes. He agrees that the use of flavorings, which were all banned -- except for menthol -- in traditional cigarettes in 2009, could make electronic cigarettes more attractive to young people.
"There was significant evidence to show that the flavorings attracted youth. When people were starting to smoke, the flavorings minimized some of the harshness of the smoking experience, so in a sense, it made smoking easier," he said. "It stands to reason that these flavorings would have similar attractiveness in an e-cigarette to youth as well."
As for what users are inhaling, Strasser and the CDC say information thus far has been scarce. The devices and fillers are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so researchers do not have a good handle on what is actually in the products.
"There is some research to suggest that there are low-levels of toxins and, of course, nicotine, which is addictive. So we need to be aware that there is just not a sufficient amount of data to make strong conclusions. And being cautious and protective is a reasonable approach," he said.
Blu electronic cigarettes, one of the most widely known e-cigarettes makers, recommends children, breast feeding women, and those with health troubles like heart disease or diabetes not use their products, according to its website. They also list six key ingredients for their flavor cartridges: distilled water, nicotine (in some cases), vegetable glycerin, natural flavors, artificial flavors and citric acid.
NBC10 reached out to Blu for comment on the new legislation. We are awaiting a response.
The FDA has said it would like to add electronic cigarettes to its purview with other tobacco products, but has yet to move forward.
The Pa. law now goes to the senate’s Appropriations Committee for consideration. Solobay hopes to get the law through both sides of the General Assembly by early spring of 2014.
Should the law pass, Pa. would be following the footsteps of other states and municipalities who’ve banned e-cigarette use. Solobay says 28 other states have already passed similar laws.
New Jersey is one of three states to also include electronic cigarettes in its non-smoking law – which prohibits smoking inside workplaces, bars and restaurants.
City council members in New York City are considering adding e-cigarettes to the city’s current no smoking policy in public places.