AUSTIN - Peddlers of electronic cigarettes may claim their products only release harmless vapors, but a number of lawmakers are unconvinced and now working to quench sales to young people.
Texas is one of nine states that don't limit sales of e-cigarettes to youth - a status that could soon change. The Senate last week passed a bill banning e-cigarette sales to those under 18. Five proposals in the House, though different in some details, do the same.
Battery powered e-cigarettes produce vapors infused with nicotine and other chemicals, and they've become popular alternatives to traditional cigarettes, said Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. Some products have yet to be studied, he noted, raising concerns.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a number of e-cigarette users are migrating from more traditional tobacco products, though a growing number of young users are new to nicotine.
In the meantime, congressional researches have found that e-cigarette companies are marketing to youth - for example, by giving away samples at concerts and sporting events.
Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said that concerns her, as do the low barriers to purchase e-cigarettes.
“Currently my 14-year-old daughter can walk down the street from her school, enter the nearest vapor shop or convenience store, and legally purchase any e-cigarette or vapor product,” Collier said during a House hearing this week. “We must limit the sale of such products to adults. They’re new products and we are just now beginning the discussion of how to regulate such a product."
While some at the Tuesday hearing said e-cigarettes were useful in helping them to kick the habit of using traditional cigarettes, a number of high school students argued against them.
“Anyone can buy them, including 11-year-olds who are just transitioning to middle school,” said James Collins, a senior at Hays High School in Buda, about 15 miles south of Austin. “In addition, minors can use the devices to deliver hash oil and even methamphetamine.”
Andres Garza, a junior at Lehman High in Kyle, also south of Austin, noted that some manufacturers market e-cigarettes as “hookah pens.”
“One of my friends told me she had to force herself to throw away the e-cigarette because she was using it every single day,” Garza said. “She didn’t know that it was addictive. They think there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Dr. Jason Terk, president of the Texas Pediatric Society, said e-cigarettes have insinuated themselves into young patients’ lives and become a gateway to future tobacco use, not a means to quit.
“Children who start smoking as adolescents have a very high likelihood of becoming a lifelong customer of the tobacco companies,” said Terk, who also represents the Texas Medical Association. “These products are marketed, surreptitiously sometimes, to the youth, with popular names of tastes and flavorings.
Terk noted that science does not move as quickly as marketing, as it took years to recognize the ill-effects of regular tobacco use.
"It was only when the science finally caught up that we were able to enact appropriate limitation and access. The science will catch up with this, as well," he said. "In the meantime, out bar for children needs to be high. We need an evidence-based public policy for children and not leave it to the market."