They look like cigarettes. They include nicotine like cigarettes. And they are puffed on like cigarettes.
But instead of smoke, they emit vapor. Instead of using a lighter, they use batteries. And instead of being prohibited for people younger than 18, they have no regulations.
They are electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes. And they’re popping up in Clark County.
Officials with Clark County Public Health gave a presentation on e-cigarettes to the Clark County Board of Health, which is composed of the county commissioners. The board asked the staff to prepare an ordinance that would restrict the sale of electronic cigarettes to only those legally able to purchase tobacco products.
The board will hold a workshop on the proposed ordinance, which will also go through the public hearing process before commissioners vote.
Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look like cigarettes. An LED light inside the device warms a replaceable cartridge that is soaked with nicotine. The light vaporizes the nicotine, which is then inhaled by the user.
Flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry, mint and tobacco can be added to the cartridge.
The lack of smoke means the e-cigarettes are not subject to the state’s indoor smoking ban. Some local businesses, however, have decided to prohibit them because it’s tough at first glance to distinguish between the devices and the real thing, said Theresa Cross, health educator for the county’s chronic disease prevention program.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating e-cigarettes and conducted a limited study in 2009. The study found that the cartridges contained detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, including ingredients in antifreeze.
The study also found some of the cartridges labeled as “non-nicotine” did in fact include low levels of nicotine.
The nonprofit group Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association claims e-cigarettes are a safer way of delivering nicotine because they eliminate the harmful elements in smoke, such as carbon monoxide.
But because electronic cigarettes are unregulated, there is no consistency between different brands of flavors and cartridges, Cross said. The lack of regulation also means manufactures’ ingredient lists, nicotine levels and safety claims go unchecked, she said.
In addition, long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes are unknown, Cross said.
“We are concerned about people using a product that is completely unregulated,” she said.
Cross purchased an e-cigarette starter kit and “juicy peach” flavoring, which also contains nicotine, at a kiosk at the Westfield Vancouver mall. The kit included the device, five nicotine cartridges — each cartridge was the equivalent to one pack of cigarettes — a power cord and two batteries, and cost $150. The flavoring was an additional $20. Cartridges are also sold individually.
In addition to the kiosk at the mall, e-cigarettes are sold at convenience stores. Health officials worry the availability of the devices and the marketing of the flavored nicotine are aimed at kids — a concern echoed by county Commissioners Steve Stuart and Marc Boldt.
“The only thing you don’t have is a cartoon camel,” Stuart said.
Stuart said he was only interested in an ordinance to prohibit people younger than 18 from purchasing the devices. He does not want to regulate what businesses can sell or adults can purchase.
Commissioner Tom Mielke said he was opposed to the commissioners taking action. Any regulation of the devices should be left to the FDA, he said.
“I personally don’t think it’s the role of the board of commissioners,” he said.
As the board of health, however, the commissioners do have the authority to enact an ordinance.
Other Washington counties, such as King and Spokane, have enacted similar ordinances to what Clark County is considering. In addition, some states have implemented statewide restrictions on the sale and advertisement of e-cigarettes.
Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.