As e-cigarettes become more popular with teens, Bay Area schools are ramping up their battle against the small electronic devices that deliver nicotine-laced vapor.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education, Fremont Union in Sunnyvale and the Santa Clara Unified District are considering updating policies to cover electronic nicotine-delivery devices, as the San Ramon Valley School Board did on Tuesday.
State law prohibits students from possessing or using tobacco on campus, and many schools ban smoking altogether. But the law doesn't define "tobacco products" -- which is why some districts are rushing to include electronic vaporizers.
"They are the new cool thing," said Mary Jaccodine, a tobacco prevention coordinator at the Center for Human Development in Contra Costa County. "My students say they are fun and you can do tricks with them, blowing O's and smoke rings and doing party tricks."
What's more, many kids think e-cigarettes are safe, said Margo Sidener, president and CEO of San Jose-based Breathe California of the Bay Area, formerly the local arm of the American Lung Association. So it is pushing for a state law that will subject e-cigarettes to the same restrictions as cigarettes.
With flavors like butter mint, blueberry cream and root beer, e-cigarettes entice young people, critics say. Sidener points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that e-cigarette use by high school students grew from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012.
Young people, Sidener said, think they won't get addicted to e-hookahs, vape pens and other electronic nicotine-delivery systems that transform liquid into an inhalable vapor that often -- although not always -- contains habit-forming nicotine.
"We know that things like electronic cigarettes and electronic hookahs and other types of products are certainly trending high in our community," said Terry Koehne of the San Ramon Valley district. In some instances, e-cigarette vapor has set off fire alarms at schools.
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.
The devices, which cannot be sold in California to anyone younger than 18, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and their health hazards are still unknown, experts say.
With e-cigarettes mimicking smoking, they have 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.
E-cigarette advocates dispute that.
"This is geared toward getting people to quit smoking," said Eric Lunn, whose San Jose shop sells e-cigarettes. People transition to "vaping" to reduce consumption of nicotine and especially of other chemicals included in traditional cigarettes, he said, adding that he's glad when customers wean themselves off e-cigarettes as well.
His shop, It Is Vapor 7, doesn't sell to minors. "If a group of 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds roll in here, we ask them to leave."
Peter Bagshaw, 23, of San Jose started vaping last year to cut down on smoking. He said it worked; he went from half a pack a day to three to four cigarettes daily. He regards the flavors as branding, just like energy drinks or liquor, rather than an enticement to teens.
"Smoking is a terrible thing," said Bagshaw, who started smoking when he was 18. "It was one of the biggest mistakes in my high school years." He thinks high schools should outlaw e-cigarettes but still thinks they don't carry enough drawbacks for him to quit.
But he concedes, "Even though it's a healthy alternative, it is still an alternative to something bad."
Users and opponents alike agree that the debate will intensify as e-cigarettes attract more users.
"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," said Scott Gerbert of the San Ramon Valley District. "It's frustrating."
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