SALT LAKE CITY — Even though laws prohibit it, children and teens in Utah have access to and are using electronic cigarettes and some state lawmakers intend to change that.
As many as one in 20 students across Utah have admitted to trying what are casually called "e-cigs" or "mist sticks," according to a 2011 survey conducted by the Utah Department of Health. Those students were also found to be significantly more likely to smoke regular cigarettes.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Wednesday that in the coming year, he will be pursuing legislation that would limit access and marketing of vaporizing nicotine products to children. He's also interested in laws that would regulate labeling, provide consistency throughout the market and give officials the ability to inspect the manufacturing and sales process of electronic cigarettes.
"We have to do something, something has to be done," he said. "We have to have a discussion on how to keep these out of the hands of our children."
Ray said the products are being heavily marketed to children and teens, "in order to get them hooked on tobacco."
He said a Weber County high school confiscated dozens of the electronic cigarette devices earlier this year, and that a Davis County school had an issue with at least one student smoking a similar device during class time.
"These are out there and kids are using them," Ray said.
Legislation passed in Utah in 2010 gave districts the authority to develop their own rules and policies on the products, but Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, said little might have been known about it then.
She believes increased awareness of and education about electronic cigarettes will lead to better practices with time.
Weber County School District spokesman Nate Taggart said Wednesday that electronic cigarettes fall under an existing policy dealing with paraphernalia of any kind, which is taken from students on a semi-regular basis.
Ray is most concerned with the perceived health issues surrounding use of the devices, which he said project the same toxic chemical as cigarettes. The vaporizers are not yet regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and few studies have exhibited any benefits or harms of their use, he said.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he wouldn't support any legislation that prohibits adults from using electronic cigarettes, or imposing an increased tax on the product.
Ray, who worked for years to pass legislation banning synthetic marijuana products in Utah, said he wants to protect children, for whom even small doses of nicotine can be lethal.
"There is a health risk, as these contain nicotine, and nicotine can be more addictive than heroin or cocaine," he said, adding that refill cartridges for the devices come in a variety of tempting flavors and the devices rarely contain an on/off switch, making for "quick and easy" delivery of the vapor it produces.
Ray said problems surrounding electronic cigarettes won't likely be addressed with just one bill, but might require continued pressure and action for years to come. He invited the industry to work with him on the process.
New numbers are expected following this year's health department survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders, expected to be published prior to the 2014 legislative session. Additional questions specifically involving electronic cigarettes have been added to the survey.