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Time for Utah to regulate e-cigarettes

For the sake of kids who are becoming addicted to nicotine, the time for dithering on this issue is over.
For the sake of kids who are becoming addicted to nicotine, the time for dithering on this issue is over.
Mauro Grigollo, istockphoto.com

Brian Bennion wonders why kids in his part of Utah are so taken with e-cigarettes. It’s a good question not easily answered.

You could say the same about a question that goes something like this: Why are Utah lawmakers so reluctant to tax and regulate this new nicotine-laden product the way they do regular cigarettes? The current legislative session will demonstrate whether this reluctance is deep-seated.

Bennion is the executive director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department, one of 12 health districts statewide. A report from the Utah Department of Health in December of 2013 found 5.9 percent of all students in grades 8-12 said they used electronic cigarettes during the 30 days prior to being interviewed. But in Weber and Morgan counties, the figure was 19.9 percent.

That’s one out of every five people in that age group. By comparison, only 5.3 percent of the kids in Salt Lake County said they used e-cigarettes. The second-highest usage was in Davis County, with 8.9 percent.

“There are no great answers,” Bennion said when I contacted him earlier this week. “Only that it seems to be really appealing to kids up here.”

Part of the problem may be old-fashioned ignorance. “Sometimes the kids go through their parents to get them,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t understand what these were. It sort of hit people by surprise.”

For the novice, an e-cigarette is a cylindrical device that, in some cases, looks like a traditional cigarette but that uses a battery-powered heater to turn a nicotine concoction into a vapor. The vapor looks a lot like smoke, but it is virtually odorless.

The ingredients of the liquid formula vary greatly and are not held to any government standards. But because they do not contain tar and some other things found in cigarettes, they do not fall under cigarette regulations. Commercials for the products are showing up on television, and some traditional tobacco companies apparently think they have found a new market.

Part of that market includes current cigarette smokers. A few weeks ago, I saw a colleague my age puffing away on one of these devices. He informed me he was using it to try to quit regular cigarettes. The product is indeed safer than a cigarette, but only by degrees, Numerous sources, including smokefree.gov, report that no scientific study has yet shown e-cigarettes effective in getting people to quit smoking.

The other part of the market, however, includes non-smokers, such as the minors in Weber and Morgan counties. For them, the nicotine is anything but harmless. At a recent legislative subcommittee hearing, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful — himself a physician — said he sees more teens becoming addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes than he sees adults who use them to quit smoking.

And yet state lawmakers rejected the idea of regulating and taxing the devices last year (other than through regular sales taxes), and it’s not certain whether they will do so this year. It’s worth noting that Altria Client Services Inc., a division of one of the largest tobacco companies in the United States, contributed $38,700 to Utah lawmakers last year, according to the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

Bennion told lawmakers he is seeing an “epidemic” that is putting the health of young people at risk. He and other health directors in Utah don’t have the patience to wait for the Legislature. Last November, the Weber-Morgan Health District began charging a permit fee for selling e-cigarettes. In March, officials will begin checking stores for compliance to its rules, including not selling to minors.

But it would be more effective if they had a strong state law behind them (it’s already illegal to sell them to minors), and if their efforts were supported by a tax on the devices.

For that matter, it would be better if the FDA would research and regulate e-cigarettes from Washington.

One Utah lawmaker argued recently that public policy won’t change how people act. The reduction in cigarette smoking since the government took action more than 40 years ago argues otherwise.

For the sake of kids in Weber and Morgan counties, and all through the state, the time for dithering on this issue is over.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.