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Published May 17, 2014, 11:20 PM

With few regulations, e-cigs grow in popularity throughout area

MOORHEAD – Aaron Templin tried quitting smoking multiple times but his efforts always fizzled after a matter of days.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

MOORHEAD – Aaron Templin tried quitting smoking multiple times but his efforts always fizzled after a matter of days.

Nicotine patches or gum never appealed to him as the path to cessation. Then, at a friend’s suggestion, he tried one of the much-in-vogue electronic cigarettes, which are tobacco-free but allow users to inhale a vapor, usually containing nicotine.

Two months later, he and his fiancée consider themselves ex-smokers on the way to breaking free from nicotine altogether.

“It was really easy,” Templin said. “Whenever we had a craving, we’d have an e-cigarette.”

E-cigarettes find themselves under a cloud – enthusiastically embraced by some as a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, while under fire from health officials who vehemently warn the unregulated products can make no scientifically valid safety claims.

The Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to regulate e-cigarettes, including banning their sale to those under the age of 18 and requiring makers to disclose ingredients.

“I can’t stress enough that there are a lot of unknowns and there isn’t enough scientific evidence” to prove the safety of e-cigarettes and similar devices, said Jeanne Prom, executive director of BreatheND.

Three recent studies cast doubt on the safety or effectiveness of e-cigarettes as alternatives to smoking, she said.

One published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that e-cigarettes did not help smokers quit or reduce their use of conventional cigarettes.

Another study published in JAMA concluded that e-cigarettes did not discourage tobacco use, while the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research suggest that some e-cigarettes yield formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, with their nicotine-laden vapor.

“Until they’re proven to be great, we’ll treat them with caution,” said Prom, who urges users or those considering e-cigarettes to do the same. She stressed that multiple proven smoking cessation methods are available, including over-the-counter options.

Templin, a Moorhead resident who smoked for nine years, has read news reports about health concerns regarding e-cigarettes. But his experience persuades him that their benefits outweigh possible risks as a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes.

“They are obviously a healthier alternative to analog cigarettes, and an excellent way to kick the habit,” he said. “It worked for me and my fiancée, and it was almost effortless.”

The nicotine potency of the e-cigarette “juice” that Templin uses has diminished dramatically, he said, as he weans himself. He also uses the device less often.

His fiancée, Linsey Kneisl, rarely uses hers, he said.

Inhaling the vapor is a lot like smoking a cigarette, which makes it an attractive substitute for someone trying to quit, Templin said.

“It’s just like smoking,” he said. “That helps.”

Others have embraced e-cigarettes as less bothersome than secondhand smoke.

Lindzee Morgan of Fargo is not an e-cigarette user, but persuaded her boyfriend, a smoker, to switch to the vapor-emitting alternative.

“I hate cigarette smoke and having to be around it,” she said, “but now I don’t have to worry about it. The e-cigs don’t have a terrible smell and actually some of them smell quite pleasant.”

As for health effects, Morgan said she is much less concerned for herself and her boyfriend “even after reading the numerous articles out there.”

Because e-cigarettes are unregulated, consumers can’t be certain what they contain, regardless of what manufacturers list, said Holly Scott, tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health.

Although some e-cigarette juice is billed as nicotine-free, “What guarantee do you have as a consumer that there’s no nicotine?” she asked.

Darius Endres, co-owner of Sports Vape, a vendor of e-cigarettes and juice on South University Drive in Fargo, said regulation is inevitable, including banning the sale to minors and requiring ingredients to be listed.

North Dakota already includes e-cigarettes in its smoke-free law, which prohibits smoking in public buildings. A growing number of cities ban the sale of e-cigarettes or juice to those under 18 and require behind-the-counter sales.

“I am completely done with smoking, Enders said, adding that he uses only nicotine-free juice.

Sports Vape is one of a growing number of e-cigarette sellers in Fargo-Moorhead, reflecting the rapidly growing adoption of the smoking alternative.

Although at least a handful of specialty shops have opened, Scott said most e-cigarettes and juice probably are sold at gas stations and convenience stores, where they are commonly featured alongside tobacco products.

Both Prom and Scott worry that e-cigarettes, with their fruity flavor options and bright packaging, are being marketed to children.

The significant drop in prices also is of concern, said Prom, who noted that the cost of a “starter kit” when look-alike e-cigarettes first appeared on the market was $50 to $100.

Now a bottle of juice that can last a week costs $7, she said.

Anecdotally, both Scott and Prom have received reports that e-cigarettes are being used by schoolchildren around the state.

A check with school administrators in the Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead and Northern Cass public school districts, however, indicates that no reports have reached the central school offices.

Moorhead has added e-cigarettes to its anti-tobacco policy, and Northern Cass will do so soon, according to school officials. Scott predicts that most school districts will follow.

The claims by e-cigarette proponents that they provide a safe alternative to tobacco echo earlier claims, including filtered and menthol cigarettes, Prom said. Studies later debunked those claims.

Meanwhile, e-cigarette backers say they have studies to show the safety of the products. Those on both sides of the debate agree that science has more work to do to settle the issue.

“We’re actually still probably rounding first base right now as far as the studies go,” Endres said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522