So-called e-cigarettes that heat liquid nicotine into flavored smokeless vapor have become all the rage among smokers trying to quit.
They've also become increasingly popular among teenagers, which could lead Nebraska lawmakers to consider banning their sale to minors.
The Legislature's General Affairs Committee will discuss the issue Oct. 4 at an interim study hearing at the Capitol, which could lead to proposed legislation when lawmakers convene in January.
"We have heard a lot of people asking why they should be legal for people under 18 when cigarettes are not," said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, chairman of the committee. "They still dispense nicotine (but) I also do not think there have been enough studies to really know what the long-term health effects are."
The National Conference of State Legislatures said more than 35 proposals to regulate electronic cigarettes were introduced last year.
On Tuesday, the attorneys general for 40 states — not including Nebraska — wrote a letter urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarettes the way it regulates tobacco products. The letter says e-cigarettes are being marketed to youngsters by offering candy and fruit flavors.
The FDA Center for Tobacco Products has said it will expand its jurisdiction over tobacco products to include e-cigarettes, but has not yet issued regulatory rules.
The FDA has lost two court battles over its efforts to regulate e-cigarettes. In 2010, a federal court said the FDA could only regulate e-cigarettes as drug delivery devices if the manufacturers claimed they could help people quit smoking or had other benefits. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit later upheld that ruling.
E-cigarettes use batteries to heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale. Some even look like real cigarettes, with tiny light bulbs that makes the tips glow.
"I think they are probably much safer than cigarettes, but some are wondering if minors are getting started on e-cigs and then moving to real cigarettes," Karpisek said. "The question is if they should be treated the same way as tobacco products.
"Interim studies are just that, studies," he said. "I think this is a good way to judge opinion and hopefully get some facts before introducing actual legislation."
The percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month.
Findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey show the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. In the same time period, high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent. Use also doubled among middle school students. Altogether, in 2012 more than 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," said CDC Director Tom Frieden. "Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."
The study also found that more than 76 percent of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes in the same period. In addition, one in five middle school students who reported ever using e-cigarettes say they have never tried conventional cigarettes. This raises concern that there may be young people for whom e-cigarettes could be an entry point to using conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes.
“These data show a dramatic rise in usage of e-cigarettes by youth, and this is cause for great concern as we don’t yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products,” said Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “These findings reinforce why the FDA intends to expand its authority over all tobacco products and establish a comprehensive and appropriate regulatory framework to reduce disease and death from tobacco use.”