Located at Southeast 36th Avenue and Division Street, the store is one of 12 Portland retail shops dedicated to the sale of e-liquids, e-cigarettes and all types of “vaping” paraphernalia used with electronic cigarettes. Although proponents say the vapor quickly dissipates, the most noticeable thing about “vape shops” is that they are filled with a haze.
At Division Vapor, five stools, filled with vaping customers, line an L-shaped glass counter containing cylindrical devices that resemble oversized cigarettes or steampunk cigars. Hundreds of miniature bottles, filled with various flavors and essences, line the walls. All contain at least one active ingredient: nicotine.
Today, stores such as Division Vapor are the Wild West, an unregulated marketplace of nonstandard products that appeal strongly to kids yet whose health risks remain largely unknown.
Promoters of e-cigarettes say they will reduce the more harmful practice of smoking cigarettes, while critics worry about the increase in addiction.
One thing’s for sure: E-cigarettes are booming. Citigroup projects that the $1.5 billion American market will double by 2015. Bloomberg News predicts e-cigarettes will overtake the $80 billion tobacco market by 2047. Tobacco companies are rushing into a niche previously dominated by smaller corporations.
The number of minors using e-cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, according to federal figures. Law enforcement officials and policymakers say the unregulated and aggressive advertising of products, which come in such flavors as “cherry crush,” “vivid vanilla” and “gummy bear,” is particularly attractive to kids.
That’s a big concern.
“No one under the age of 18 should be able to buy these products,” says Oregon state Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie).
The federal Food and Drug Administration is still assessing the regulation of e-cigarettes, which are not classified as conventional tobacco products because, although they deliver nicotine, they contain no tobacco.
In lieu of federal regulations, at least 28 states and 110 cities and counties have enacted their own laws regulating the sale and use of e-cigarettes. Last month, however, Oregon’s legislature whiffed on two bills that would have addressed e-cigarettes.
House Bills 4073 and 4115 would have both banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. But after opponents pushed back hard, both bills were shelved.
Benton County decided not to wait for the state to act. On Feb. 18, county commissioners there voted to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Multnomah County, which pushed for legislation in February, will join the interim legislative work group but has not yet decided whether to act unilaterally.
“The board has not yet had the conversation on if local action is needed, and what that action may be,” says Julie Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Multnomah County Health Department.
There are a couple of impediments to speedy action. First, the explosion in popularity of e-cigarettes means there are enormous financial consequences to regulation.
Second, e-cigarettes are so new, the science around health risks remains unsettled.
There is no clear scientific consensus on the health effects of either firsthand or secondhand exposure to e-cigarettes. Both sides cite studies declaring definitive yet opposing conclusions. Most studies are ambiguous. The elements of e-cigarettes themselves are difficult to study.
“By the time one had funding to complete a study, the data would be outdated since the device studied would be outdated,” says Mirabai Vogt, a spokeswoman for Oregon Health & Science University.
On Feb. 26, the European Union passed legislation addressing advertising, manufacturing standards and distribution. Standardization would improve researchers’ ability to assess health risks.
Tomei says she hopes an interim committee will come up with solutions that go beyond banning sales to minors. “Just saying this can’t be sold to someone under 18 is not going to be that effective,” she says.