Students using more e-cigs

Some say electronic cigarettes are healthier, but their full effects are unknown.

Tyler Gieseke

University of Minnesota staffer Brad Kaufman said he began smoking electronic cigarettes a few months ago because they contain fewer chemicals than regular cigarettes.

“They’re better for you,” said the Office of Information Technology systems administrator.

While they may be less harmful than regular cigarettes, health experts caution that the full effects of e-cigarettes — which are growing in popularity nationwide — are still unclear.

Rather than burning tobacco, an electronic cigarette heats up nicotine extract, turning it into a vapor that the smoker inhales, said Anne Joseph, a professor of medicine who researches how people quit smoking. Smokers can buy liquids with different concentrations of nicotine.

In regular tobacco cigarettes, smokers inhale nicotine along with about 7,000 other chemicals and carcinogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in e-cigarettes, both the levels of nicotine and cancer-causing agents are “much, much” lower, Joseph said.

Without further research, however, it’s difficult to say what the long-term effects of smoking e-cigarettes could be, she said, adding that it took a long time to figure out that regular cigarettes cause lung cancer.

David Yousef, a store manager at Smokedale Tobacco’s Stadium Village location, said he first saw e-cigarettes appear on the market only about a year and a half ago.

In that time, he said he’s seen increased sales among students.

Yousef attributed e-cigarette’s popularity to the value they pose. A typical e-cigarette, which can be reused, is about $25, said Jolene Struss, a Smokedale employee, and liquid costs between $10 and $16 at the store. One bottle can last a smoker between one and two months. An average smoker might pay $7.50 every day or two for a pack of cigarettes, she said.

A new tobacco tax that began in July, adding $1.60 to each pack sold, doesn’t increase the cost of e-cigarettes as much.

Yousef said e-cigarettes can also help people trying to quit smoking.

Smokers can slowly reduce the concentration of nicotine in the liquid they smoke, he said, eventually using a nicotine-free liquid.

“There might be a good use for e-cigarettes,” Joseph said, like helping people quit or providing lifetime smokers with lower exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. However, similarities in nicotine intake could extend the quitting process, she said.

Joseph also said young people could start smoking e-cigarettes and “graduate” to smoking tobacco ones.

“It sure looks like they’re being marketed to younger people,” Joseph said, pointing out that a website for e-cigarette manufacturer Blu, prominently features starter kits and different flavors of nicotine liquid, including “cherry crush.”

Yousef said he doesn’t think e-cigarette advertising targets young people. If tobacco companies only advertised to young people and ignored the adult population, he said, they would lose customers in the long run.

Some students start smoking e-cigarettes because they can be used where smoking is banned, like bars and inside other buildings, said journalism senior Laura Anderson.

But sometimes the lure of actual tobacco is too much. Anderson said she knew students who began smoking e-cigarettes but switched back to regular cigarettes because they missed tobacco.

More than 21 percent of Minnesota college students said they had smoked in the past month, according to Boynton Health Service’s 2012 College Student Health Survey.

Although some people think e-cigarettes are useful to help quit smoking, said Kaufman, the OIT staff member, smokers who need to get their fix are still dependent on nicotine.

“I think some people forget that,” he said.