E-Cigarettes: Unregulated hazard or smoking alternative?
MARATHON COUNTY (WAOW) - An estimated four million Americans are now using e-cigarettes and an increasing amount is also finding its way into the hands of Wisconsin teens.
Vaping experts say e-cigarettes are a healthier choice than smoking but with a lack of regulations, the hazards are still unknown.
Tobacco and vaping experts say e-cigarettes has become a nearly $2 billion industry that has people lighting up across the country.
"In the last year it's gone up and and up there are more people looking for alternatives," said Alyson Schalow, the manager at the Vapor Bar in Rib Mountain.
That alternative is called e-cigarettes or vaping.
Schalow says more people are switching from traditional cigarettes to quit smoking altogether.
"It's a way for people to get their nicotine satisfaction, like you get from cigarettes, but without all the other tar and other chemicals that are unknown," said Schalow.
Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not need a lighter.
The e-cigarette's battery heats the e-juice and then vapor can be breathed in through the mouthpiece.
While less toxic than cigarettes, health officials say e-cigarettes are not a risk-free option.
Studies have found carcinogens or cancer-causing substances in both the e-juice and the vapor.
"When we think about heating these things and changing the chemical properties of them, that's where we find those ten known carcinogens," said Destinee Coenen, the Central Wisconsin Tobacco-Free Coalition Coordinator at the Marathon County Health Department.
The e-liquids come in bottles that can contain up to 24 milligrams of nicotine.
Workers say that amount is about the same as smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.
"They'll start where they need to whether it's 18 or 12 milligrams and then when they feel they're ready they'll go a level lower and go down and down, a lot of people do go down to zero," said Schalow.
But Marathon County Health Department officials say vaping is not a proven way of quitting.
"There's not a lot of research on exactly what the health risks, the long time effects of vaping at this time," said Coenen. "It's hard to tell exactly what's going to happen and how they affect people.
Also, e-cigarette and e-liquid production currently are not being regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Vapor Bar manager says that means some businesses aren't following good manufacturing practices.
"You have nicotine inconsistencies, volume inconsistencies, if it's not a clean room, then you don't really know what's getting in that bottle," said Schalow. "Just inconsistency in general. Nicotine in general can be very dangerous, so it does need to be regulated."
For example, if the e-liquid is swallowed, it could lead to nicotine poisoning and death.
Schalow says her store only buys its e-juice from certified labs.
She says new rules could help make the vaping industry safer for customers.
"That's why we as a business would like to see the FDA come in and make their regulations because businesses like that making juice out of their warehouse or basement that will be eliminated," said Schalow.
Teen usage of vaping is also an increasing concern.
According to the 2014 Wisconsin Youth Tobacco Survey, 7.9 percent of high schoolers have used e-cigarettes.
Not only is that double the national average, but it's also up nearly two percent from 2012.
Officer Frank Wierzbanowski is a school liaison officer at D.C. Everest Senior High School in Weston.
"It appeared very quickly," said Wierzbanowski. "This really took off last year on us."
School leaders say at the time staff were reporting student e-cigarette usage about once a week.
Wierzbanowski says he confiscated these vapes on campus last year.
"There's also ones that look exactly like pens too, which make them harder to detect or when a student has them on them," he said.
Since e-cigarettes are tobacco-free, they are not included in Wisconsin's smoking ban. Wierzbanowski says that left police departments in legal limbo.
"Because there was nothing to enforce it," said Wierzbanowski. "It was such a fast thing to the market and to retail that we were catching up to it like everything else."
Wierzbanowski worked with the Village of Weston to write an ordinance, making it illegal for minors to use e-cigarettes.
"For us to enforce it not only for the district, but even for the community we had to adopt that ordinance to enforce because kids were obviously obtaining it either from adults or other means to get to these e-cigarettes," said Wierzbanowski.
Since adopting the ordinance, he says he's seen teen usage in schools go down.
But other cities, like Wausau, still don't have an ordinance in place against e-cigarettes, making it nearly impossible to enforce.
"I believe other agencies are probably looking at it and adopting it," he said. "I think it's something that's being addressed by all the villages and cities."
For now, much of the vaping industry goes unregulated as scientific research continues and lawmakers work to catch up to the booming business.
Wisconsin politicians are debating whether or not to extend the state smoking ban to e-cigarettes.
Democrats are in favor of doing so, but republicans say vaping should be treated differently than traditional cigarettes.
In March, the FDA will hold a public workshop as part of its deeming process of e-cigarettes.