U.S. health officials say teenage use of e-cigarettes has reached "epidemic" levels. The Food and Drug Administration has given the five largest manufacturers of the products 60 days to produce plans to immediately reverse underage use of their products. Otherwise, the manufacturers risk having their flavored products pulled off the market.
Some Milwaukee area officials also are targeting the products. But there are fans of e-cigarettes here, too.
E-cigarettes are electronic devices that heat up a nicotine solution to produce a vapor that people inhale. The inhaling is called "vaping." The solution, called "e-juice," can come in flavors that kids might like, such as Fruit Loops and gummy bears.
Dan Molash owns Dripper's Paradise, an e-cigarettes store on the Milwaukee's south side. He's 30-years-old and began smoking traditional cigarettes when he was 16. He says vaping has been his key to quitting smoking.
Though, he was against vaping at first. "Because the flavors weren’t there, the technology wasn’t there," he adds. "It just wasn’t giving me the experience I was looking for."
But Molash says, over time, the technology and flavors got better. "With that, I was able to quit smoking. It was maybe like six months that it took from me starting vaping, to quitting smoking totally," he says. And he's been able to stay off cigarettes for about four or five years.
Molash says it’s possible to vape liquid with no nicotine, or with various concentrations of nicotine. He says now that he’s done with cigarettes, he’s hoping to phase off his use of e-cigarette nicotine, as well.
But experts say that people shouldn’t consider e-cigarettes to be a risk-free substitute for traditional cigarettes. Dr. Doug Jorenby is a professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
He says there’s no tobacco in the solution for e-cigarettes, so people aren’t inhaling carbon monoxide, like with a traditional cigarette or cigar.
Yet Jorenby says while the devices may not be as carcinogenic as cigarettes, there are other concerns with vaping.
"The FDA was testing some of the e-juice that was being sold and found that, in many cases, the nicotine content was wildly inaccurate based on what was labeled — had quite a bit more or quite a bit less. And in some cases, there were industrial contaminants in it," Jorenby says. He adds that when some of the substances are heated to a high temperature and inhaled, it can destroy the air sacs in the lungs.
Jorenby also says there’s a special concern when it comes to minors taking in that nicotine.
"If people are exposed to nicotine before about the age of 16, they develop a form of nicotine dependence that’s much more severe, meaning it’s harder for them to quit," he says. "They tend to smoke more as adults. But if they’re not exposed to nicotine until they’re after that age, then that increased dependence doesn’t manifest itself."
Jorenby says another risk is that there is now pretty clear evidence that kids who start vaping with nicotine are more likely to take up traditional cigarettes.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction surveyed the use of e-cigarettes among youth. The survey found that more than 11 percent of a representative sample of public high school students reported vaping. Nearly 25 percent of high school senior males say they use the devices.
The FDA calls it a "youth epidemic," and wants to "forcefully address" the issue. Some local politicians are on the same page. Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy says the city has been taking actions to prevent young people from vaping.
"We increased the penalties significantly for retailers selling to minors. If they’re selling single nicotine items it’ll also be increased significantly. In addition, we prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, which aligns us with state statutes. And finally, we’ve also prohibited the use of e-cigarettes on city property and places where state law currently bans smoking," Murphy says.
Vape store owner Dan Molash says while he's a fan of e-cigarettes — for adults trying to quit smoking traditional cigarettes — he understands the risk of teens getting hooked on the devices. He says that's because he was young when he started smoking.
"I did it because I was trying to be cool, and it turned into a severe addiction that I ended up spending 10 years of my life dealing with. It took pretty much this whole five years to start overcoming that fully. So, it’s like, yeah, for any teenager to pick this up, it’s a dumb move — vaping or smoking."
He says he’s checking the IDs of everyone who appears to be younger than the age of 27.