E-Cigarette Debate : Shrouded in vapor

Some able to quit tobacco; others worry about risks

South Bend Tribune

Dave Adams was a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker since he was 14 years old, unable to sleep well because of his wheezing and depressed because he was convinced he would die young.

That, he says now, didn't even include the considerable expense of the habit he just couldn't manage to shake, no matter how much doctors lectured or how much he wrangled with his worries.

Adams, who turns 44 this week, then tried using electronic cigarettes, which are electronic gadgets that heat up to produce a vapor -- a flavored liquid that may or may not contain nicotine -- and was able to quit smoking.

He was so impressed by how much better he felt, he says, that he began to sell

e-cigarettes and liquids online as a hobby while working his regular retail jobs.

About five months ago, he and his friend, Joanne Bolerjack, opened a shop, E-Cig-Works, on Mishawaka Avenue in River Park that has proven so popular it has outgrown its space. It will soon move to a larger spot, 501 W. McKinley Ave.

E-cigarettes are now found all around Michiana, in most places where you can buy traditional cigarettes. Adams said E-Cig-Works, which stocks all sorts of e-cigarettes and liquids, is the only shop that features only the electronic version.

E-cigarettes and "vaping" have swept across the country in the last year, even as we note the 50th anniversary -- in 2014 -- of the U.S. surgeon general's warning against the now well-documented hazards of traditional cigarettes, including cancer. Indiana's lingering adult smoking rate of 24 percent is still among the country's highest.

Yet calls for Food and Drug Administration studies and regulation of electronic cigarettes, and worries of their appeal to young people, have also intensified.

Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that included this statistic: The number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine rose from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014.

"We know that most tobacco users want to quit," Miranda Spitznagle, director of tobacco prevention and cessation for Indiana's Department of Health, said last week. "We don't know enough about these products (e-cigarettes) to guide people."

'Wonderful aid'

Janice Hanefeld was in her late teens when she began smoking, when cigarettes were 25 cents a pack.

"In those days it wasn't frowned upon," the now-67-year-old said. "It was just fun. It was cool."

The South Bend woman quit smoking about 13 years ago, when her granddaughter was born, but she'd still pick up a cigarette in social situations. And her husband, Ritchie, still smoked regularly.

That is, until her daughter, Joanne Bolerjack, introduced the two of them to electronic cigarettes almost a year ago.

"We haven't (smoked) at all since we've used these," she said. Her husband, who had tried patches and medications, has stopped coughing. And the habit is less expensive.

"I wouldn't tell anybody that didn't smoke to do it," Hanefeld said. "But it's a wonderful aid for stopping."

For her part, Bolerjack, who runs the shop with Adams, said the liquid mixture she gives her mother contains no nicotine, and her father's liquid has only a minimum amount of nicotine.

Bolerjack said all of the shop's customers she knows are former smokers.

Todd Rhodes from South Bend is one of those.

"I was able to put 'em down and not pick 'em up again. I don't want the chemicals, I don't want the tar, I don't want the smoke, I don't want that for my body," the 34-year-old said of cigarettes. "However, having tried to quit nicotine, I find I feel better with nicotine in my body."

So Rhodes said he uses a blend of e-cigarette fluid with the smallest level of nicotine and feels much better physically -- and has lost 18 pounds since Oct. 24, when he quit smoking regular cigarettes.

He acknowledges nicotine can be toxic and addictive, and the electronic cigarette industry should be regulated.

Most fluid containers now are child-proof, Rhodes said, but he points out that a lot of misinformation is out there and consumers should be wary of what they're buying when e-cigarettes are available at every gas station.

Adams said he makes his own products, buying only from American companies rather than from China or other overseas manufacturers.

Just last weekend, the group hosted a "vape meet" at the BK Ballroom in Mishawaka to demonstrate such things as how to better use electronic cigarette equipment. They estimate 60 to 70 people showed up.

Seeking answers

Because e-cigarette use has apparently skyrocketed in the last 12 to 18 months, scientific studies have struggled to keep up.

One CDC study reported that e-cigarette use doubled for junior high and high school students nationally between 2011 and 2012, based on a pencil-and-paper questionnaire, from 1.1 percent to 2.1 percent. The study also found that 76.3 percent of those students who used e-cigarettes within 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes during that period.

Critics have suggested the sweet flavors in some of the "vapors" -- from tropical to cotton candy -- might attract kids, who might then be lured to regular cigarettes. (Rhodes points out that nobody raises the same alarm about similarly flavored vodka.)

In 2013, Indiana lawmakers made it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to buy electronic cigarettes.

During this year's General Assembly, state Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago, introduced a bill to tax electronic cigarettes. It didn't go anywhere, but he said last week he plans to ask for a summer study committee.

"These things have really taken off," Harris said last week about e-cigarettes. "It really bothers me."

Because the FDA has been slow to address the issue, Harris said states need to look at what the repercussions might be on youth.

"These kinds of things are either good for you, or they're not," he said. "If they're not good for you, we need to start bringing attention to it."

Meanwhile, the clamor for the FDA to act is growing.

FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski said by email last week the agency has proposed to include e-cigarettes as part of its regulation of "tobacco products" but cannot say when that will happen.

The proposed rule has been sent to the Office of Management of Budget, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Right now, she said, no e-cigarettes are approved for "therapeutic" purposes. "Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products."

Consumers may submit voluntary adverse event reports to FDA for electronic cigarettes through the Department of Health and Human Services' Safety Reporting Portal:

Adams, who grew up in a family of smokers and is relieved at being able to leave conventional tobacco behind, welcomes the validation.

"I figured if it worked for me, it would work for other people," he said, "and I became pretty passionate about it."

Feedback from last week

Last Monday's column about stink bugs apparently hit home -- literally. A lot of you are finding pesticides to use against the Asian invaders, although entomologists warn against their use. Here are a few of your comments:

Greg Zeigert: I've been flushing an average of two or three a day all winter long myself.

Pat Lynch-Harvey: There were tons of them in the soybeans last year. I work at a grain elevator every fall and grade the grain and there were tons of them.

Mindy Hall: I've found a few here and there for the past couple months. I heard if you rub softener sheets on screens it keeps them away.

Stephanie Hollingsworth: I made my husband kill 3 yesterday. In the summer they cover the outside of my house. My son asks me to wait by the front door so when he gets home from school I can fling the door open while he runs in.

Jamie Benjamin O'Hare: They smell like rotting cilantro!


Kevin Wieringa releases a cloud of vapor Friday at E-Cig-Works in South Bend. Electronic cigarette options have multiplied as their popularity has skyrocketed. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)