Smoke Screens: A special report on the booming e-cigarette industry

Smoke Screens: A special report on the booming e-cigarette industry

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - There is no denying that the e-cigarette industry is taking East Texas by storm. Vapor lounges, where people both use and buy e-cigarette supplies, are popping up in nearly every city in our area. However, there is still a lot to learn about this new trend, known as "vaping." It may look like cigarette smoke, but what more and more East Texans are puffing out is flavored, heated water vapor and nicotine.

Many people say vaping is safer than smoking a cigarette because of what's inside. The liquid that people are vaping has significantly fewer ingredients than a typical cigarette. The ingredients are also less toxic - namely, there's no tobacco or tar.

But there are some ingredients that have e-cig critics on-edge. Then there's the nicotine found in most liquids. That nicotine leads parents to worry that their children will become addicted to it as e-cigarettes become more popular among kids.

Jeremy Williams of Jacksonville has been vaping for 100 days. It's no coincidence for the first time in years, Jeremy hasn't picked up a cigarette in 100 days either.

"October 20th of last year. That's the day I quit," recalls Williams.

For Williams, the vaping trend has helped him save the money he'd otherwise be spending on cigarettes. An app on his phone estimates he has saved $157 dollars and avoided smoking more than 1,100 cigarettes. He's convinced his health has improved too.

"I do sleep a lot better. I obviously don't have the smell of smoke. I breathe a lot easier and I don't have the cough in the morning," Williams explains.

"It's basically a battery and some kind of container that you call a tank. You put the liquid in, you put [the cap] on, and then you have a toot," demonstrates Roy Hufstetler, of Toot Juice, a mom-and-pop vapor shop in Jacksonville.

Toot Juice makes all of their liquid in house.

"Our liquid consists of 4 things--  propelyne glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine and the flavoring," explains Hufstetler.

The same ingredients are found in mass-manufactured bottles of vapor flavors, more commonly referred to as "juice." While there is no tar or tobacco, the propelyne glycol is raising eyebrows. A bottle of wholesale propelyne glycol says it's used not only for e-cigarette liquids, but also for and antifreeze solutions. However, e-cig fans are quick to point out that the same bottle says it's also used in medicines, cosmetics, food, and toothpaste.

"Products for your skin... it's used in injectable forms... It's used in inhalers... used in a lot of stuff that we use everyday," says Times Square Vapor Lounge co-owner J.J. Hubbard.

Back at Toot Juice, Hufstetler says he was a three-pack-a-day smoker who had been at it since he was 12 years old. When he used cigarettes, Hufstetler was smoking whatever was on the shelf. Now his vaporizer lets him decide just how much nicotine he gets.

"We definitely would never encourage anyone to start whether you're a child or an adult. Our view on this is to help people stop smoking," he says.

The Food and Drug Administration isn't ready to sign off on that just yet. Last year, they sent a warning letter to companies telling them not to market e-cigs as a smoking cessation. Because vaping is so new, the long-term effects are still unknown.

"It's not just vapor they're inhaling. It's heated nicotine and nicotine, we know, is highly addictive," says Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine. Dewine is asking the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes in his state, where they are sold to children.

According to the CDC, in 2012 more than 1.78 million middle and high school students reported trying e-cigarettes. Data collected by the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows between 2011 and 2012 the number of high schoolers smoking cigarettes decreased from 15.8 percent to 14 percent. However, look at this, the number of high schoolers using e-cigarettes increased from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.

"Although they're not recommending people go out and start this --which I don't either-- it's definitely a better alternative and a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes," says Hufstetler.

With flavors like bubble gum and hawaiian punch, critics are skeptical -- accusing the e-cig industry of marketing to the next generation.

"I think that should be addressed. I don't think a 21-year-old or a 33-year-old adult wants a bubble gum cigarette. That's not the market they're targeting," says Michelle Setzer, a mother of three.

However, the vapor shops in East Texas say that's not the case. Each shop we came across made it clear that they will not sell their products --even the "juice" with no nicotine at all--  to anyone under the age of 18.

"We don't let anyone in here that's under 18 and we do ID," says Hubbard back at Times Square Vapor Lounge.

Still, e-cigarettes and vaporizers are no match for the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry, but they're growing. Now with more than 200 companies in the e-cigarette market, big tobacco companies are trying to get in on the sales.

After being off the airwaves for 40 years, companies like R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, the makers of Winston, Camel, American Spirit and Newport are back. This time, they're selling --and advertising-- Vuse and Blu e-cigarettes.

The CDC says the increase in the use of electronic cigarettes can be attributed to their low price, marketing, availability and the perception that they products might be a safer alternative. Official health organizations stand by their claim that right now there is not a lot of hard evidence regarding the effects of long-term e-cigarette use.

In September, 40 state attorneys general signed a letter urging the FDA to begin regulating e-cigarettes. The FDA says that they intend to issue a rule that would eventually make these products subject to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

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