Donald Bucklin: E-cigarettes an effort to hook new generation of smokers

About a year ago, I was surprised to find out from my daughter that hookah pens were all the rage among the high school crowd.

If you are, like I was, among the uninitiated, this is a device of roughly cigarette proportions that contains a battery, a tiny vaporizer, something to vaporize, and a button to make it go.

Most commonly that “something” is propylene glycol and nicotine. Press a button and you can inhale a smoke-like vapor that contains nicotine or a few other drugs for the more adventuresome. Since nothing is burning, you are not technically smoking, and the smoke-free laws are therefore neatly sidestepped. Yet all the while people are getting a very smoking-like experience. Clever little device, huh.

E-cigarettes/hookah pens are kind of a half-full/half-empty sort of thing. The industry likes to take the high road. It wants you to believe that if you are a two- or three-pack-a-day smoker, and you switch to e-cigarettes as a substitution, you are better off.

And why wouldn’t you be? There’s no tar, no carbon monoxide and no 400-plus chemicals released from burning tobacco. You won’t burn the house down, and there is only one thing to worry about – nicotine!

The e-cigarette competes for these presumably soon-to-be ex-smokers with nicotine gum, patches, Chantix, antidepressants, hypnotism, will power and tracheostomy. There is no great evidence that these devices help people quit smoking – but they might. With fewer and fewer smokers, this doesn’t seem like a strong business model for growth.

So what is the e-cigarette industry actually betting on?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey gives us a clue. A few of our tax dollars keep track of smoking rates in young people. That seems prudent, given the negative long-term health consequences of smoking. Looking at students from grades 6 through 12, e-cigarette use more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, going from 3.3 percent that had tried it to 6.8 percent. Of the 2.1 percent who were currently e-cigarette users, 75 percent also smoked regular cigarettes, with their 400-plus chemicals that require a match.

Small percentages doubling in a year’s time doesn’t sound like much, but there are a lot of kids in school – about 15 million in high school alone. A little math works out to over a million high school students who are, or have become, e-cigarette customers – most of whom also smoke regular cigarettes.

If the trend continues with hookah pens, next year there will be 2 million, and before long, a new generation of smokers. Does the expression “gateway drug” come to mind?

Are hookah pens the latest version of Joe Camel? Are they wrapped in purple paper and sold at “head shops” to attract adult smokers or teens? Interestingly, when one of the largest university systems in the world – the University of California – decided to ban smoking on all its campuses effective Jan. 1, it included e-cigarettes in the ban. The California State University system is considering a similar ban.

We have made great progress in the last two decades to reduce smoking. In many areas, smoking is so rare that it’s actually startling to see someone lighting one up.

Let’s not fool ourselves that these cute “personal vaporizers” are out there to get 60-year-old smokers to quit. The real purpose is getting 16-year-olds to start.