Syd Djahanmir hasn’t smoked a cigarette since he left the hospital two months ago after recovering from bronchitis. Now, he lights up an e-cigarette, exhaling a thick stream of white smoke during a recent visit to Vape Ink in Rockville.
While Djahanmir enjoys his e-cigarette, Maryland, Washington. and Virginia governments have begun regulating and taxing them, much to the dismay of some people who believe vapers, as e-cigarettes are called, are helping them kick the tobacco habit.
An e-cigarette is a battery-operated device that heats a cartridge filled with a flavored liquid, known as e-juice. The heated liquid is then inhaled. While many stores advertise some of their e-juices as being nicotine-free, that is not the case, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Because e-cigarettes are not regulated, “there’s no way of knowing how much nicotine is in them or what other chemicals they contain,” says HHS’ website, smokefree.gov.
What is known is that nicotine is bad for a person and does impact on brain development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April called it “alarming” that 2.5 million children use e-cigarettes.
“In just one year…the number of kids using e-cigarettes appears to have tripled,” said Tom Frieden, CDC director.
“E-cigarette aerosol is not water vapor. It contains nicotine and can contain other chemicals. It is not as safe as clean air,” according to the CDC.
“Right now, not enough is known” about the nicotine content, but it is a “misnomer” to say that only water vapor is inhaled and exhaled, said Amy Lukowski, a psychologist at National Jewish Health in Colorado.
“We are really early in the game,” she said about research on e-cigarettes. Vapers generally are used by two types of people, those who want to cut down on their tobacco intake and nonsmokers. As for the first group, e-cigarettes “have not been proven as a cessation aid,” she said.
She is also concerned about the jump in use by young people, noting the possibility that e-cigarettes “serve as a gateway to other tobacco products.”
There are 250 e-liquids on the market, making it difficult to know what all the ingredients, she said.
The amount of nicotine “is all over the board,” said Lukowski, who works at National Jewish Health’s call in center, known as the ‘quit line.’ NJH began in 1989 by a group of Jewish philanthropists led by Frances Wisebart Jacobs to serve destitute people suffering from what was then known as consumption, but is now called tuberculosis.
When someone calls the quit line for help in stopping tobacco use, “we will never promote” e-cigarettes, she said. However, if callers are insistent that they intend to cut back on cigarettes by using vapers, NJH will work with them, Lukowski said. But, because it not known how much nicotine they will be inhaling through their vape pen, any recommendations for what e-liquid to use is not exact, she said.
Meanwhile, area governments aren’t waiting for proof about the possible negative health consequences and have passed regulations to both control the use of e-cigarettes and tax them.
It is illegal in Virginia as of last year for minors to purchase or possess nicotine vapor products. Also, beginning next month, the state will direct school boards to develop and implement policies that prohibit the use of e-cigarettes on school property, school buses and at school-sponsored events.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for 2016 lumps e-cigarettes in with tobacco products. If the proposal is adopted, e-cigarettes soon will be taxed at 70 percent, like cigarettes.
Montgomery County in May enacted an excise tax on e-cigarettes at 30 percent of the wholesale price. That tax will go into effective Aug. 19.
“It’s a revenue-raiser. That’s the intent,” said George Leventhal, county council president. However, he said, “Certainly we are concerned” about the possible negative health effects.
The county also enacted a ban, effective June 12, on the use of e-cigarettes in public places where tobacco smoking is prohibited. When that ban was approved, Council Vice President Nancy Floreen said, “Perhaps swayed by the belief that electronic cigarettes are safe, or emboldened by the fact that e-cigs have little odor that parents could detect, teens who have never tried traditional cigarettes are using e-cigs, putting themselves at risk for nicotine addiction, nicotine poisoning or exposure to harmful chemicals.”
Customers and employees at Vape Ink are not happy with the new regulations and additional costs, questioning why governmental officials want to curb use of a product they believe can reduce tobacco use.
“Most people do it for the hobby,” said manager Ivan Tagki as he searched through a wall filled with e-liquid containers, including best sellers Unicorn Milk, which has a strawberry cream flavor, and John Wayne, which is a vanilla caramel tobacco.
The other side of the narrow store is a lounge for people to use their products and “chill,” Tagki said. “These are people who just enjoy smoking.”