SALT LAKE CITY — Jada Brown sees kids using electronic cigarettes at her high school every day.
"Just yesterday, I walked into the bathroom and some girls were doing smoke tricks with their vapor. And it smelled so good," she said. "I asked them what flavor it was and they said, 'Scooby Snacks.' Now what adult would buy that? It's totally marketed for kids."
Earlier this week, the 16-year-old also witnessed a classmate buying an e-cigarette from another kid in their chemistry class.
"He actually just gave it to her, she didn't even have to pay," Jada said. "It's seriously crazy. They're everywhere."
From 2011 to 2013, e-cigarette use rates tripled among teens in Utah, according to a Utah Department of Health report that began tracking the behavior only a few years ago. The same report indicates that one in five kids in Utah reports regular use, which is one of the highest use rates in the nation among states that track the behavior of teens.
"The e-cigarette industry is addicting our youth," said Dr. Scott Barton, and obstetrician and chairman of the Utah Tobacco Free Alliance. "Big tobacco knows this is their ticket to a next generation of smokers."
He said that while the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes and their nicotine vapor cartridges want people to think the products are safer than traditional cigarettes, "there are many carcinogens and irritants in the vapor. It's not water vapor like you've been told."
Barton was joined by about 100 teens from all over the state on Thursday to help convince Utah lawmakers to adopt tighter regulations and a proposed tax on e-cigarettes.
"Our message to big tobacco is this: Don't mess with us. Not in our state. Not with our kids," he said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is planning to back legislation that would penalize smoke shops and other retailers for selling e-cigarette products to minors.
While the practice is already prohibited, there are no statewide licensing requirements to sell the products, meaning anyone can sell them. With no licensing requirements, there are no compliance checks and few consequences for selling to teens.
Ray and other lawmakers are also supporting a tax on e-cigarettes, which is written into the governor's budget proposal. It would bring tax on the products up to what is charged for the purchase of traditional cigarettes, 87.5 percent of the value.
"Young people are most sensitive to cost. If these are sold at a higher price point, kids are more unlikely to start using," Ray said.
Teens from Heber conducted their own market research, finding that a single e-juice cartridge — which contains the equivalent of 100 cigarettes or five packs of traditional cigarettes — costs around $8. A starter kit, containing juice and a vaporizer, can be purchased at a convenience store for around $11. And people "only pay sales tax on that," said Megan Royal.
"The low prices are enticing teens," she said.
And the products are harming youth as well. The Utah Poison Control Center received 131 calls relating to e-cigarette use last year.
Griffen Bate, of Tooele, said he walked through a cloud of vapor and was struck with a compromising asthma attack.
"When you can't breathe, it is a horrible feeling," he said. The 13-year-old said he has to think there are harmful properties in the vapor, as "I don't have an asthma attack in the shower."
He hopes his peers understand what they might be doing to themselves when they inhale the vapor that e-cigarettes put out, but also cautions, "It could be life-threatening to me."
The "astronomical" youth use rates, Dr. Kevin Nelson, a pediatrician, said, are "dooming a generation to addiction." He said experimenting with e-cigarettes, as with any other drug at a young age, can have long-term impacts on a person's brain, making them more susceptible to addiction.
"We need to protect our children," Nelson told lawmakers. "We do it for so much more than this, but this needs to be done."
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