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OGDEN — Austin Francis has seen all kinds of students smoking electronic cigarettes at school.
A senior at Fremont High School, Francis, 17, has seen students "vaping" in class, in the hallways, at sporting events, after team practices, waiting for the bus or while driving in their cars. The practice is widespread, reaching students from all kinds of social groups, he told the Weber-Morgan Health Department on Monday.
"They're not scared to do it," he said after the meeting. "They'll be switching out their flavors or combining flavors and seeing which one they like the most. Then they go and tell their friends, and then (those students) go tell their friends."
One trick students use is to hide the e-cigarette in their sleeve so they can smoke in class, puffing the vapor back into their shirt so their teachers won't see it, Francis said.
After finding that as many as 20 percent of teens in Weber and Morgan counties report they regularly use e-cig experimented with nicotine vapor products, the health department is considering regulations penalizing the sale of e-cigarettes and products in the two counties to anyone under 19.
A localized approach
"We didn't feel that we could wait any longer," Weber-Morgan Health Department Director Brian Bennion told the counties' health board as he presented the regulation Monday.
The practice is easy, addictive and growing in popularity, he said, fueling an "epidemic," pushing Weber and Morgan counties to lead the state in underage teen nicotine consumption.
New regulations would not impact adult use of e-cigarettes but would mimic the regulations and protections already in place to keep kids from buying traditional cigarettes, Bennion said.
Police and health department officials went undercover to perform compliance checks last month, investigating how easy it could be for a teen to buy e-cigarettes. Out of 19 "vape shops" in one city, five sold to a teen sent in to test the system, Bennion said. Some of the stores never even requested identification.
Under the new regulations, selling to someone who is underage could carry a fine or other penalties. Compliance checks are one of the most effective tools for curtailing cigarette sales to youth, keeping infractions in the state about 7 percent, Bennion said.
"The majority of retailers are going to be good. They want to do the right thing," Bennion said. "It just gives us a chance to get a handle on this. We can only control certain things, and this is one way we think we can prevent access for youth."
A need for statewide regulation
In response to childhood poisonings from e-cigarettes, the proposal also includes regulations passed in Davis County earlier this year for local manufacturers of the "e-juice" that fuels the devices, requiring a license for businesses that do so and subjecting them to inspections.
Aaron Frazier, who heads the Utah Vapers association, said he supports compliance checks and manufacturing regulations but is concerned about them being determined by each county. Utah Vapers wants to work with the counties but haven't been contacted by anyone, Frazier said.
"The thing I'm fearful of is there will be different restrictions in every county," he said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored e-cigarette regulations in the state's legislative session in March, said the e-cigarette companies are to fault for the inconsistent regulations. Ray's bill died when time ran out.
"They fought it, so now they're getting exactly what they asked for. They are different standards per county," Ray said. "They brought this on themselves."
The Weber-Morgan county regulation is close to the bill Ray hopes to pass during Utah's next legislative session, as well as some proposals in the works in other counties.
Ray has been alarmed at the counties' climbing numbers as he has partnered with the health board on its proposal. E-cigarette use among teens has climbed in Ray's district as well, he said, and threatens to spill into Davis County.
"For the parents sitting home right now thinking, 'My kid doesn't do this,' you might be in for a big shock," Ray said after speaking in support of the regulation at Monday's meeting. "You can't smell it. It's easy to hide. You may have no idea they're doing it."
Ray was joined by a team of doctors who offered support for the proposal. Darlene Peterson, who specializes in family and addiction medicine in Roy, recounted talking to teens in their back-to-school checkups and finding out they're using e-cigarettes. Peterson said she believes flavors like "razz-wow-wow" and "plum crazy" are specifically targeting children.
"Something needs to be done," she told the board. "This is increasing, and that's what's alarming to me. This is being perceived as safe."
A public hearing regarding the proposal will be held at the Weber-Morgan Health Department on Oct. 27 before the board takes its vote.
Contributing: Andrew Adams