The latest weapon in the tobacco wars is increasingly finding its way into the pockets and backpacks of students across the nation.
The e-cigarette -- a James Bond-stealthy, technology-chic version of the traditional cigarette -- is often mistaken for an ink pen, but it is a battery-operated device that turns a liquid form of nicotine into an inhalable vapor.
E-cigarettes can also emit fruit and candy flavors, such as bubble gum or chocolate -- suited for youthful tastes.
Rising use among teens is a worrisome trend to school officials who are increasingly changing their tobacco policies to ban the e-devices. This week, both the Antioch and San Ramon Valley school districts will decide the issue.
With the Big Three tobacco companies of Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard investing heavily in the e-cigarette market -- projected to be a $2 billion global market -- the use of the electronic nicotine-delivery devices by teens has been growing -- doubling from 2011 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With a growing number of students caught using them on campus, over the past few months some Bay Area school districts have been reconsidering their tobacco policies to include a ban on e-cigarettes, e-hookahs, vape pens and other electronic nicotine-delivery systems.
Both the Alameda and Contra Costa county boards of education tweaked their policies at the end of the year to prohibit the electronic smoking devices after the state Department of Education put out updated tobacco-prevention recommendations in October.
Since then, a number of East Bay school districts have followed suit and have revised or are revising their policies, including Antioch, Berkeley, Castro Valley, New Haven and the San Ramon Valley school districts. And the Santa Clara County Office of Education is also looking to re-evaluate their tobacco policies, though they haven't done so yet, said Myrna Zendejas, the county education office's tobacco prevention and education manager.
Mary Jaccodine, a tobacco prevention coordinator at the Center for Human Development, which conducts tobacco cessation workshops for students caught smoking in Contra Costa County, said that these days, she sees "more students with e-cigarettes than those who were caught with cigarettes."
"They are the new cool thing," she said. "My students say they are fun and you can do tricks with them, blowing O's and smoke rings and doing party tricks," but they never think they'll get addicted to them like regular cigarettes, even though they contain nicotine, which is habit-forming, she said.
Janine Saunders, Alameda County's Office of Education tobacco prevention manager, said "there are a number of students who will say they would never smoke a traditional cigarette because they turn your teeth yellow or smell bad but say, e-cigarettes are fine."
Yet the devices, which cannot be sold in the state of California to anyone younger than 18, do contain liquid nicotine vapors and other toxic chemicals, and they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so their health hazards are still unknown, experts say.
And because e-cigarettes mimic smoking, they become a gateway for many teens to try traditional smoking and other addictive behaviors, said Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco.
However, many educators say that not all students using e-cigarettes are up to no good.
In fact, "in every incident we've had, these are good kids that were under the impression that e-cigarettes were not products that contained nicotine -- and that's why we are attempting to do a better job of educating students in our community," said Tony Shah, the Castro Valley school district's director of student services.
Susan Craig, director of student services for the Berkeley school district, said not just students but even parents have come onto campus and used them. Her district's new tobacco policy, passed in December, applies to visitors as well as employees and students.
Yet Scott Gerbert, ¿the San Ramon Valley district's coordinator of student services, said that for he and many other educators, it's just another chapter in the continuing saga of tobacco wars. Just as cigarette smoking has decreased over the years, the e-cigarette threatens to be the next big thing to hook teens into start puffing.
"Every time we think we've won a little battle for change, the tobacco industry stays two steps ahead of us, finding new ways to market their products and sell their goods." Gerbert said. "It's frustrating."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.