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Health officials worry about kids and e-cigarettes

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Anthony Berosik uses an e-cigarette
18-year-old Anthony Berosik is perched on a stool at a long counter inside Maplewood Tobacco puffing on an electronic cigarette, Dec. 23, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

Fresh from class at North Senior High School in North St. Paul, 18-year-old Anthony Berosik perched on a counter stool at Maplewood Tobacco and puffed on an electronic cigarette. As he exhaled, a large, sweet-smelling cloud formed around him and then dissipated.

"It tastes good," he said. "It's got cotton candy in it, apple and peach."

Berosik is part of what health professionals see as a troubling trend. They say more teenagers are using e-cigarettes. Many of them have never been smokers. 

Berosik is a former smoker. He said e-cigarettes helped him quit regular cigarettes. But he said plenty of young nonsmokers are taking up e-cigarettes just for the fun of it.

"A lot of them are," he said. "You know, just in the high schools you see a lot of people that are getting caught using them in class. It's a lot of the younger kids that want that. They start coming into it because they think it's something cool."

Public health officials are beginning to catch up to the popularity of inhaling vaporized candy-flavored nicotine, or "vaping."

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota health commissioner, said he and others are concerned that e-cigarettes threaten to hook a new generation on nicotine, undoing monumental gains in persuading kids to avoid cigarettes.

"From our data, 25 percent of the ... kids who are using e-cigarettes have never used tobacco products," Ehlinger said. "So it's not like they're giving up cigarettes."

E-cigarette flavors
E-cigarette flavors at Maplewood Tobacco, Dec. 23, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

The latest Minnesota youth tobacco survey, published last month, found almost 13 percent of Minnesota high school students had recently used an electronic cigarette. A national survey of 41,000 secondary students released this month found e-cigarette use even higher among teens.

That survey was conducted by Lloyd Johnston, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. Johnston said the high rates of e-cigarette use caught him by surprise, and he hopes the information will spur efforts to regulate the industry more closely.

"These findings should create a greater sense of urgency to carry out whatever changes in regulations are going to occur for e-cigarettes," he said, "because, clearly, they're making rapid inroads into the American adolescent population."

Johnston's survey found that 62 percent of eighth-graders associated conventional cigarettes with great risk, but just 15 percent felt the same about e-cigarettes.

"I think it's important that they understand — and I don't think they do — the risk of becoming addicted to nicotine," he said. "So they don't really see the hazards right now for e-cigarette use, and I think we're going to have to bring that out to the point where kids understand it."

In addition to nicotine addiction, there are concerns about potential long-term health hazards from inhaling the vapors from e-cigarettes.

Johnston and others think one way to reduce adolescent vaping would be to ban candy-flavored nicotine liquids such as bubble gum, cotton candy and Gummi Bear.

Health Commissioner Ehlinger also favors limits on the public use of e-cigarettes. He said he doesn't plan any e-cigarette proposals for the Legislature in its upcoming session, but thinks the federal government should treat e-cigarettes the same as conventional cigarettes.

The Minnesota Legislature has already banned vaping in health care facilities, public schools, government-operated buildings and child care facilities.

The League of Minnesota Cities, which reports that about 40 cities have imposed regulations on e-cigarettes, wants the Legislature to include e-cigarette limits under the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act.