MANATEE -- With the popularity of electronic cigarettes increasing since their introduction in 2003, many teenagers have experimented with them.
The use of the smokeless nicotine delivery devices among Florida teenagers has more than doubled in just two years, even though state statues forbid selling e-cigarettes to anyone under 18.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 12.1 percent of high school students in Florida have tried e-cigarettes in 2013, up from 6 percent in 2011.
Skip Wilhoit, coordinator of safe schools for the Manatee County School District, said there has been about
a 50 percent drop in teen use in tobacco use since around 2000.
According to the 2010 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey study by the Florida Department of Children and Families, 33 percent of Manatee County middle school students and 60.3 percent of the high schoolers surveyed said they tried cigarettes, compared to 16.8 and 34.1 respectively in 2010.
"E-cigarettes have been brought to our attention, and our policies cover all new products," Wilhoit said.
Along with all tobacco products, the possession and use of e-cigarettes are prohibited on school grounds and at school-sponsored activities, he said.
There are consequences for violating these policies, Wilhoit added. The federal ban on advertising tobacco products was an important step in reducing teen smoking, he said.
Big Tobacco takes notice
But with the large tobacco companies getting into the manufacturing and marketing of e-cigarettes, their advertisements are enticing teenagers and young adults to try the product.
Sharon Scarborough, the principal of Sugg Middle School, said that while she has not seen her middle school students with e-cigarettes,
the student code of conduct has been updated to include policies for e-cigarettes.
"The new code of conduct treats them the same as possession or use of tobacco," Scarborough said. "It is a contraband item. If we see a student with it, well will inform a school resource officer for and decide on the appropriate consequence."
David Underhill, the principal of Bayshore High School, said that he has caught a couple students with the e-cigarettes this year, although he said it is not a regular occurrence.
"We treat it just like a cigarette," Underhill said. "We notify parents, and the student gets a detention. We move it to the SRO in case he wants to give them a ticket."
Underhill said that typically, the school resource officers opt to not give out tickets.
He said in each case at Bayshore High, the student was caught because of the visible vapors from the e-cigarette.
Underhill said while the e-cigarettes are not technically a tobacco product, there needs to be rules about prohibiting them from campus.
"It's not the same as tobacco, but we have to act on it because you have to be 18 to buy and posses them," Underhill said. "For the most part, the students understand that we are treating it just like a tobacco product because it does have nicotine it in."
Although, like tobacco products, sales of e-cigarettes in Florida to anyone under 18 years old are prohibited, some teenagers are finding ways to obtain the product.
Bradenton Deputy Chief of Police Warren Merriman said that while he has not encountered teenagers using the e-cigarettes, the devices can be easily obtained by youth the same way as tobacco products -- from friends or parents.
"We haven't really had a problem with that," Merriman said.
Merriman said there are ways that schools can be more aware of middle and high school students bringing e-cigarettes on campus.
"School resource officers do a very good job on enforcing no tobacco products on school grounds," Merriman said. "We ask if a teacher or parent sees a student with a tobacco product or an e-cigarette that they contact the SROs or a school administrator."
Merriman said he could not verify if the e-cigarettes do appeal to teenagers.
"I have never been a smoker," Merriman said. "I don't know what the appeal is."
Detective Sgt. Sean Monahan, leader of the Bradenton Police Department undercover Narcotics Unit, said that he has not heard about the use of e-cigarettes among children under the age of 18 locally.
"I have no first hand reports of juveniles using them," Monahan said. "It is not prevalent in this specific area yet, and hopefully it doesn't happen that way."
E-cigarettes and THC link
Monahan said that he is aware of people using the e-cigarettes to smoke THC from marijuana, making it harder to detect.
"It wouldn't be consistent with the typical paraphernalia," Monahan said. "If you couldn't smell it, it would be good way to conceal it."
Monahan said he heard about the use of e-cigarettes to smoke THC from marijuana through a confidential informant. However, he said that he has not encountered this issue, and he "does not have enough knowledge" yet.
"We need more intelligence gathering," Monahan said. "Then we would come up with various techniques to try to detect it."
Adrea Sparano, health educator with the Collier County Health Department, said that because many of the e-cigarettes come in flavors such as strawberry and vanilla, and are packaged with bright and appealing designs, many teens have been using e-cigarettes.
"They see it comes in strawberry and think it's not as bad as smoking tobacco," Sparano said, adding that it gets them hooked on nicotine.
Electronic cigarettes resemble a traditional cigarette, but do not burn tobacco. Instead they contain a battery that powers a vaporizer that converts a liquid nicotine into a vapor which the user inhales.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which enforces the state's tobacco laws, does not regulate e-cigarettes.
Wilhoit said he did not have any statistics on Manatee County students using e-cigarettes, but said the Students Working Against Tobacco, or SWAT, clubs in the middle schools have included education on the product in their programs.
"They are empowered to come up with their own campaigns," he said.
Just from what he has read about e-cigarettes, Wilhoit said they are addictive because of the nicotine they deliver in the vapor.
The CDC has warned that e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway to cigarette smoking for teenagers.
Pathway to nicotine habit?
In a news release, the federal agency reported, "e-cigarettes are becoming a tool used to get youth and young adults hooked on nicotine, which is a highly addictive, dangerous chemical."
According to the CDC study, 1.8 million middle and high school students nationwide tried e-cigarettes in 2012 even with the restriction on sales.
Elaine Keller, president and one of the founders of Consumer Advocates for Smokefree Alternatives Association, said her group was against teenagers purchasing and using e-cigarettes.
But Keller said CASAA was opposed to any attempt to ban or restrict sales to adults.
"We encourage legislation to restrict the sale to anyone under the legal age to purchase cigarettes," she said.
CASAA, now with more than 6,000 members, was formed in 2009 by members of an online forum as an advocacy group to raise awareness and protect access to smoking alternatives.
"The FDA was seizing e-cigarette shipments, and we started to become concerned about losing the thing that was helping us quit smoking," she said. "There is still an ongoing campaign to get rid of e-cigarettes or make them less accessible."
A Wells Fargo analysis estimates e-cigarette sales in the United States could reach $1.7 billion by the end of this year.
Regardless of the number of teenagers trying e-cigarettes Sparano said Collier County officials are working to curtail sales to minors with resolutions and awareness programs.
Efforts to curtail use
In 2010, the Collier County commissioners, as well as the municipalities of Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City, passed resolutions encouraging local retailers "to cease the sale and marketing of all flavored tobacco products."
The Manatee County Board of Commissioners has not yet discussed a resolution for retailers of e-cigarettes in the Bradenton area.
Sparano said this county-wide effort has been very successful in Collier with the cooperation of the retailers and has put a dent in the tobacco industry's marketing to entice youth and young adults to become tobacco users.
"This brings attention to the fact that flavored tobacco products lead youth to smoke," she said. "The resolution also brings the issue before the public."