November 17, 2013

No flame, plenty of fire over rise in e-cigarettes in Maine

They’re tarless, smokeless, and, apparently, odorless. So do the rules for cigarettes still apply?

By Mary Pols
Staff Writer

Toby Simon had just dropped off her daughter at Thornton Academy in Saco when she noticed a white Kia Optima wrapped in an advertising banner for SmokeEnds e-cigarettes with the slogan “Your HABIT ... Made BETTER.” A tobacco policy specialist, Simon was perturbed by the car’s presence on campus. “I just kind of sat there for a while,” she said. “Then I got out and took a picture.”

Carrie and Steve Gorham run SmokeEnds, a company distributing e-cigarettes.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Steve Gorham touts the benefits of e-cigarettes. His wife, Carrie, started the distributorship three years ago after throwing her last seven cigarettes into a mud puddle.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

An emailed version of that picture made its way to the headmaster’s office and then the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which determined that the 16-year-old driver of the car, which advertised a brand of e-cigarettes being imported and distributed by her family’s business, was not breaking any laws by parking it on campus.

Some boundary had been crossed, though, of both school policy and social protocol. The girl’s mother, Carrie Gorham, the founder of SmokeEnds, agreed that her daughter would park it off campus from now on. But the scenario typifies the gray area around e-cigarettes. In this tale of two mothers, Gorham sees them as the wave of the future and the lesser of two evils. Simon worries they represent another way for the tobacco industry to make a buck on nicotine addicts and find new, younger customers.

E-cigarettes have been available in the American marketplace for about five years and are, as Amber Desrosiers, the tobacco policy coordinator for Maine’s attorney general, puts it, undeniably “up and coming.” Movie star Leonardo DiCaprio has been photographed with one for years. Reported usage doubled between 2010 and 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Annual sales are expected to top $1 billion this year.

But the level of confusion around the battery-operated devices hasn’t dissipated as they’ve moved beyond novelty, in no small part because the Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue regulations for e-cigarettes. The long-term health effects are not yet clear, and neither are the societal aspects of using them. They look like cigarettes and they deliver a hit of nicotine, an alkaloid that raises blood pressure, but should the smoker duck outside a restaurant to use them, or push back from the table and have an e-cigarette with his coffee? In a television ad for Blu, the e-cigarette made by the tobacco company Lorillard, the actor Stephen Dorff promises you can light up a Blu “virtually everywhere.” What he can’t promise, legally, is that they will get you to quit nicotine. But the fact that he can espouse the virtues of e-cigarettes on television, where tobacco ads have been banned for years, is yet another signifier of that gray area.

All this ambiguity is deeply frustrating to Ed Miller, spokesman for the American Lung Association’s Maine chapter. “It’s the wild, wild West out there,” he said.

The lung association’s stance is that smoke-free laws should be applied to e-cigarettes, even if what comes out of them is vapor rather than secondhand smoke. Miller cites a German study that found trace amounts of formaldehyde and benzine in the vapor emissions. But while no one seems to be able to locate any definitive research, more people are discovering the products.

One of the key statistics that fuels Miller and Simon’s concern and the nationwide debate over e-cigarettes is the increase in the number of middle and high school students who say they have tried them. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, between 2011 and 2012 the percentage of kids in grades 6-12 who said they’d used the battery-operated cigarettes increased from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. And e-cigarettes come in such flavors as chocolate, orange, caramel and even, if you hunt for it online, something called Cap’n Crunch Berries.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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E-cigarette display at Joe’s Smoke Shop in Portland

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

 


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