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Electronic cigarettes are not a big hit with teens

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 11:01 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Gabrielle Williams, 46, of Lincoln Place, co-owner of Vape Inn in the South Side, puffs on an electronic cigarette at her shop on Wednesday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, is pushing legislation that would prohibit minors from buying e-cigarettes. Some shops such as the Vape Inn in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood, already refuse to sell to minors.

Smoke shop owners and school administrators supporting legislation to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors acknowledge the devices are not a teenage craze.

“I didn't know it was legal to sell to kids,” said Gabrielle Williams, co-owner of Vape Inn on East Carson Street in the South Side, which stocks the personal smoking simulators. “I never see them in here. Teenagers don't really try to buy.”

Signs such as Williams' warding off underage, would-be patrons could become a statewide norm if Senate Bill 1055, fresh from the Judiciary Committee, passes the Senate when sessions resume in the spring. Pennsylvania would be the 27th state to enact stricter legislation.

Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, introduced the measure in July as officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared to release a report claiming the rate of teens who admitted to using an e-cig in the past 30 days nearly doubled from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 2.8 percent in 2012. The study did not account for frequency of use.

Bill Godshall of Monroeville, a longtime anti-smoking activist who runs SmokeFree Pennsylvania and supports the bill, said those figures are not as troubling as they sound if it means teen smokers illegally obtaining cigarettes are opting for e-cigs instead.

“If teens, like adult smokers, are switching to e-cigarettes,” he said, “that's not a public health problem; that's a public health solution.”

Several regional school districts have addressed the issue, updating tobacco and alcohol policies to include alternative nicotine products on school property or at school functions.

Matthew McKinley, Seneca Valley School District's assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said he noticed an upswing last year.

“One teacher even caught a student (smoking) at the lunch table,” he said. “Kids come up with a variety of excuses, but we do prohibit the use of them on campus and discipline on a case-by-case basis. Depending on their cooperation, we might even give the device back to a parent.”

Gateway, Hempfield and several dozen other school districts endorse similar policies. Many others follow suggested updates posted on the Pennsylvania School Board Association website.

Association spokesman Steve Robinson said officials try to base those policies on existing legalese and let local districts decide, in consultation with association solicitors, how they want to phrase school mandates, a position the state Department of Education backs.

“If e-cigarette bans ever become law, obviously we would update our policies right away,” he said.

Tracy Rapport runs Smoke Alternative Electronic Cigarettes in Squirrel Hill, a store she founded because she said Pittsburgh lacks a competitive market.

“There's definitely a demand here, especially for the good, refillable and rechargeable products, but I wouldn't let someone under 18 buy here anyway,” Rapport said. “I mostly see people trying to quit smoking, so if that's what they want, they should get a parent to buy one for them.”

For now, the bill addresses only the sale of alternative tobacco products, though Solobay said he might amend the measure next year to include small fines or community service sentences for minors found in possession.

Godshall said some anti-smoking advocates take the issue too far by trying to ban the use of e-cigs by adults.

“There's no evidence these products are being marketed to kids,” he said. “The reality is these products have helped millions of smokers quit.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com. Staff writer Melissa Daniels contributed to this report.

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