Zarko Radich said electronic cigarette sales at his business, Jack's Cigars, are on the rise. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
WATSONVILLE — The past decade has been hard on smokers.
Countless rules, laws and taxes have made the habit expensive and inconvenient, but the tobacco industry has persevered. An estimated 43.8 million people, or 19 percent of all adults in the United States, smoke electronic cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As the industry takes a pounding, electronic cigarettes have taken the smoking world by storm, and because they currently are largely unregulated they have been able to get a firm toehold in communities across the U.S.
They are sold in tobacco shops throughout Santa Cruz County.
The battle of the traditional cigarettes industry has been a fierce one.
Proposition 29, defeated by voters in 2012 after a tobacco industry-funded opposition campaign, would have increased per-pack tax by $1.
But even as stalwart smokers continue to puff, they are staring down the barrel of Senate Bill 768, a tax initiative set to go before voters in June. This time, each pack of cigarettes would be slapped with a $2 tax, raising the price of a carton by $20.
Enter electronic cigarettes, a new and largely unregulated smoking method that allows smokers to take in nicotine without emitting smoke.
They work by heating a liquid containing nicotine, turning it to vapor that can be inhaled.
The practice is popularly known as “vaping.” Some are rechargeable, while others are disposable.
Proponents claim electronic cigarettes are safer than traditional tobacco smoking, emit no smoke and produce no tar. The devices have been billed as a way to stop smoking.
But health officials are dubious.
Santa Cruz County Health Officer Lisa Hernandez pointed to flavors that can be added to electronic cigarettes such as bubble gum, cookies and cream and gummy bear, which has prompted officials to accuse the industry of marketing to children.
“I’m very concerned about electronic cigarettes,” she said. “I’m worried this is going to re-glamorize smoking.”
Perhaps the biggest concern is that few studies have been done on the effects of the vapor on smokers or on bystanders, Hernandez said.
“That’s one concern,” she said. “It’s unknown what’s inside, and we don’t know what the effects are.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to release a list of regulations as soon as this week, Hernandez said.
Those regulations are expected to bring the $1.5 billion electronic cigarette industry in line with those of the tobacco industry.
Lawmakers are taking a similar stance.
State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett has proposed Senate Bill 648, which would require electronic cigarettes to be regulated like electronic cigarettes.
The bill passed through Senate in May, but was shelved in August by the Assembly, which is expected to take up the issue again in January
“SB 648 limits the use of e-cigarettes as they pose unknown health risks in a public space,” Corbett said. “We must always stand on the side of public health since we still do not yet fully understand the safety of chemicals present in e-cigarette vapors or when nicotine itself leaks from the products. It simply makes sense to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product when they are already prohibited in many public spaces.”
In a Sept. 24 letter to the FDA, 40 attorneys general from across the U.S. asked the agency to impose, “immediate regulatory oversight” of e-cigarettes, which they called, “an increasingly widespread, addictive product.”
They pointed to a 2012 study on tobacco use among teens by he Centers for Disease Control that 1.8 million middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.
The attorneys also stated that there is not currently a federal age limit for the products, and no restriction on advertising.
This year’s Superbowl, they said, featured a 30-second commercial that translated to a 30 percent increase in sales for the industry.
A local response
Zarko Radich, who owns Jack’s Cigars in Watsonville, said he began carrying the products recently in response to customer demand.
Radich said he caters to an older clientele that seeks products such as quality cigars, pipes and tobacco, and so he carries only a handful of disposable e cigarette products that range from $6.99 to $8.99 and offer flavors such as black cherry and white grape.
Jack’s Cigars also carries a limited supply of electronic cigars, and will soon carry e-hookahs, a tobacco pipe with a long, flexible tube that draws smoke through a bowl of water.
“It’s probably going to keep youngsters smoking,” he said of the e cigarette industry.
Abdul Rahim, on the other hand, is taking advantage of the popular new pastime.
Along with his brothers, Rahim owns Discount Cigarettes, which boasts 48 locations throughout the Bay Area.
He sells dozens of different products, from starter kits to disposable electronic cigarettes and dozens of different flavors. Soon, the company will sell its own line of electronic cigarettes, which is currently in production.
Rahim said the tidal wave of sales has been so complete that the industry has gotten its talons into the younger generation in a way tobacco has never done.
While his company and California law requires that customers be at least 18 to purchase electronic cigarettes, he said the industry has indeed successfully marketed its products to young adults.
“About 80 percent of young people are smoking,” he said. “It’s everywhere. The industry is getting bigger.”
A call and email to blu Cigs, a popular electronic cigarette brand, were not returned as of press time.
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