Amid signs that e-cigarette use is rising among Oakland students, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is preparing to vote within the next two months on policy that would likely extend the ban on smoking to cover the battery-powered nicotine delivery systems just as it does conventional cigarettes.
In a parallel move, (Sept. 23) Alameda County’s Public Health Department Director Muntu Davis plans to propose guidance for e-cigarette policy to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. The policy would ban e-cigarettes everywhere that regular cigarettes are banned in unincorporated areas of the county, not including Oakland.
There are no regulations now limiting e-cigarette use in Oakland, though neighboring cities like San Francisco, Richmond, Hayward, Dublin, Union City and Fremont, have taken steps to include e-cigarettes in their anti-smoking laws.
E-cigarettes, which allow users to inhale nicotine vapor instead of tobacco fumes, are advertised as a safer alternative to smoking. But the health effects of “vaping,” as it’s called, haven’t been well-studied, and the consequences of long-term use are unknown, the American Heart Association said in a statement in August.
A new study released this week (Sept. 22) raised doubts about their potential to help some smokers quit. The study in the journal Cancer said that among cancer patients who smoke, those who also used e-cigarettes were more nicotine dependent than those who did not.
Though the risks of e-cigarettes may vary by type of nicotine liquid and the specific design of the vaping device, FDA tests in 2009 found detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals in multiple e-cigarette brands, according to an American Heart Association statement. Two studies also found formaldehyde, benzene and a tobacco-specific carcinogen coming from second-hand e-cigarette emissions.
E-cigarettes may function as a gateway product leading youth to conventional smoking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a study published in August. Among middle and high school students who don’t currently smoke cigarettes, those who use e-cigarettes are almost twice as likely as non-users to intend to smoke, the study said.
There are Oakland kids now using e-cigarettes, especially kids who haven’t smoked conventional tobacco products before, said Robert Dousa, OUSD’s program manager for the tobacco, alcohol and drug prevention and intervention program. The devices have a cool factor, he said, and the pen-like cases and added fragrance mask their use at school.
“I think a lot of people want to pick a healthier option. Students want to be different from their parents, and culturally we created a stigma around smoking cigarettes. But people smoking e-cigarettes—they think that’s cool,” Dousa said. “It’s glamorous, it’s available and it’s easy.”
Every February, the school district gives 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th graders a health survey that indicates that the number of students using non-smoking tobacco, which includes e-cigarettes, has tripled in the last few years.
Although it’s hard to break down the specific roles played by vaping and chewing tobacco in “non-smoking tobacco,” the district plans to include a specific question about e-cigarettes in the coming February 2015 survey.
“I have a feeling that as many as 10% will say they’re smoking e-cigarettes,” Dousa said.
E-cigarette companies are targeting youth by making the vaping devices easy to disguise, he said. “Teachers are fooled because they have scents and they look like pens,” he said, “so teachers are like, ‘What’s that nice smell?’”
Olivia Ryder, an Oakland Technical High School junior who started vaping her freshman year, agreed that it’s easy to carry e-cigarettes around school. “They look like pens,” she said. “You can keep them in your backpack and I’ve even left them out. They don’t look like vaping devices and people definitely use them in school–sometimes in the bathrooms.”
Ryder said she wanted to try e-cigarettes initially because they were a trend going around school, and she thought they would be better than cigarettes.
“A lot of people just do it because they’re cheap and you don’t have to purchase them regularly like cigarettes. You don’t get a high or anything. It’s just something to smoke,” she said. “I like the fruit ones because I like fruit. They have tons of flavors, and I’ve seen people mix flavors together because they’ll taste really good.”
Katherine Nguyen, a senior at Oakland Technical High School, said that she started to see classmates vaping last year. In one class, a group of students used e-cigarettes to bait their teacher, she added.
“They would do it as a joke, so its scent would be around the classroom to bother the teacher,” Nguyen said. “She would wonder where the smoke or the smell came from, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly where, because we were in a classroom that was full of windows.”
Devon Winger, a junior also at Oakland Technical High School, said that vaping has become more popular among her classmates, adding that a few of her friends started because e-cigarette commercials promoted them as a way to get off cigarettes, which made them seem healthier. “They know cigarettes are bad, and they were like, ‘I won’t get addicted from e-cigarettes,’” she said.
The Oakland school district has a tobacco policy from 1999, but Dousa said it needs to be updated to include e-cigarettes. An updated policy will likely go before the Board of Education within the next two months, he said, and if passed, would label e-cigarettes as “flavored tobacco,” and would include them in the existing tobacco policy.
Sam Cadillac, a manager at Vapor Den, a retail lounge that sells e-cigarettes in Berkeley, said that vaping is still more effective at helping addicted people quit than it is at driving newcomers to smoke. Cadillac described himself as a former heavy smoker, and said he started vaping instead because cigarettes were getting too expensive.
“We see it all the time, where this old lady or old man comes in and you would never think that they’d consider an alternative, but they start vaping and eventually they don’t smoke anymore,” he said.
While Vapor Den’s average customer is between 28 and 42 years old, Cadillac said that in the last six months he has seen a rise in young customers, mainly people drawn to the mechanical mod, a personal vaporizer in a small metal tube with a button that uses a battery to heat up liquid nicotine solutions and create an inhalable vapor.
“When they’re saying that it’s a gateway, because teens are buying them and getting into cigarettes, those teenagers were going to get into it anyway,” Cadillac said. “This is coming from someone who started smoking weed at 13, and then started smoking cigarettes from there, so I can tell you that those teens – they’re on their way there anyway.”