Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara Superintendent of Schools

If you don’t know what a “vape pen” or a “cloud pen” or a “hookah pen” is, your teenagers or even pre-teens probably do. These are some of the various names for e-cigarettes — battery-operated cigarettes that contain an atomizer that vaporizes a liquid form of nicotine. The liquid comes in an individual cartridge, and is flavored with chocolate, peppermint, pina colada, cotton candy, or mint chip, among other appealing flavors. In a pocket, it looks like a pen.

These pens emit no smoke and no smoking odor. In fact, they are sweet-smelling, which makes their use easier to hide.

These devices are unregulated at the federal level and many people fear that the “cool” image they convey could undo years of efforts to stem the tide of teenage smoking.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last year that the percentage of students in grades 6 to 12 who had tried e-cigarettes doubled from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. Of the 1.78 million students nationwide who reported experimenting with electronic cigarettes, 160,000 said they had never used conventional cigarettes.

Nationally, 38 states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and the Federal Drug Administration proposed a rule that would include devices like electronic cigarettes under the category of tobacco products, which means they could be regulated at that level as well. In the meantime, children under 18 can easily access these products through independent sellers like eBay.

E-cigarettes have helped millions of adults cut back on smoking, but the effects on young people remain worrisome. Said Brian King, a senior advisor in the CDC’s office on smoking and health, “We know from past experience with other tobacco products that flavoring can mask the harshness of these products and make them appealing and enticing.” Add the sleek look, and these devices become “cool” to young people.

Also, because these devices are not yet considered tobacco products by the federal government, there is no restriction on advertising campaigns, which often feature celebrities and children’s characters to entice young people.

The reason the federal government has not yet issued regulations is that use of the product didn’t really gain strength until about 2009, which means there are not yet enough longitudinal studies on the potential long-term health effects. But nicotine, the addictive ingredient in cigarettes, is a major component of these devices and the data is clear on its effects.

Said CDC’s Brian King: “We know that nicotine has adverse health effects on the adolescent brain. A lot of these products are advertised as containing no nicotine, but laboratory testing has shown that they actually do.”

He added that besides nicotine, some e-cigarettes contain potentially hazardous chemicals such as metals, low-level nitrosamines, and formaldehyde. Others have cited the presence of cadmium, and benzene. Some young people have inserted illegal substances like marijuana into the pens.

School districts are currently adjusting tobacco-free policies to include this new product, as a pro-active means to safeguard children’s health.

The biggest worry at the moment, by researchers studying the effects of these devices, is that they will “revive the popular smoking culture that has taken decades to dismantle.”

As has always been the case in the past, education is the best antidote — providing parents and young people alike with an awareness of the issue and the dangers.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has pointed interested individuals to this website: http://no-smoke.org/learnmore.php?id=645 and is happy to provide further information for those who write to: phdtobacco@sbcphd.org.