Vt. debates e-cigarette safety, Part 2 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. debates e-cigarette safety, Part 2

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Some Vermont lawmakers worry about a spike in e-cigarette use in Vermont and they're pushing for more regulation. But will new rules and higher taxes get people back on tobacco?

"I was a smoker since I was 21-years-old," Tim Rumbinas said.

Rumbinas remembers all too well the night he got hooked on smokes.

"One night I was cramming for exams, somebody gave me a cigarette in college and I was never able to break the habit," said Rumbinas.

He tried desperately to quit for 30 years.

"I was sitting there smoking like a diesel and I said I've got to stop this," said Rumbinas.

Nicotine patches, gum, even prescription medications: Nothing worked, until he started using electronic cigarettes.

"It's the only thing that's been effective for me. I do not feel any desire to smoke cigarettes or burning tobacco," said Rumbinas.

He says it works because it has a similar feel to smoking.

He buys his e-cigarette supplies at NEK Vapor. They are battery-operated and rechargeable nicotine inhalers and liquid nicotine solutions and flavors that are heated and turned into vapor.

Dennis Steele opened the Lyndonville business a year ago.

"People smoking 40-50 years are looking for ways to get off the combustible cigarettes and they are coming here to do that," said Steele.

He's seen a steady increase in customers.

"If you are going to smoke, you might as well vape. You probably shouldn't do either one, but if you are going to smoke, you might as well be vaping," said Steele.

"If you are trying to quit smoking, if that's the reason you are using e-cigarettes, there are much more effective ways to do it," said Rhonda Williams of the Vermont Department of Health.

The Health Department says e-cigarettes are not safe alternatives to tobacco and points to studies showing e-cigarettes can contain cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals and varying concentrations of nicotine. Right now, they're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

"They are not safe for inhaling," said Williams.

The FDA may not be regulating e-cigarettes yet, so some Vermont lawmakers here in Montpelier say they will. Several bills are being proposed this legislative session.

"I think it should be a huge public health concern," said Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset.

Komline has become the banner carrier for the anti-e-cigarettes movement at the Vermont Statehouse. She and other lawmakers want them banned in public spaces and state buildings, want restrictions on advertising and store displays, and want to reduce the number of flavors sold in Vermont to just plain and menthol. Right now there are more than 7,000 e-cigarette flavors from maple to gin and tonic.

"There are toxins in the vapor as well and we are just learning about this, so it needs to be regulated," said Komline.

And taxed, she says. Right now, since they are not tobacco products, e-cigarettes are only subject to a 6 percent sales tax.

Reporter Darren Perron: Will we see a tax on e-cigarettes this year?

Komline: I wouldn't be surprised.

Taxing e-cigarettes, like regular cigarettes, at 92 percent instead could raise $500,000 a year in Vermont. But others argue 40 percent of that revenue would be lost to online sales. For health officials, it's more about preventing people from using period.

"What is important is to make it comparable to other tobacco products. Right now e-cigarettes are much cheaper than what else is out there," said Williams.

In 2012, Vermont led the way in limiting who can buy e-cigarettes making the minimum age 18.

Perron: That's not going far enough?

Komline: I don't think it is. I think when you look at the popularity is outstripping the harmful effects we don't even know about yet or are just learning about, frankly.

The state also required child-proof packaging. There have been 15 cases of liquid nicotine poisonings since 2010 in Vermont, either by swallowing it or getting it on their skin. Seven of those cases involved children under five. None were serious here. But in northern New York, a 2-year-old died from a nicotine overdose.

Perron: is the state concerned these devices are being targeted toward children?

Williams: Yes. Certainly.

She points to fun flavors like bubble gum and cupcake. The health department says use among young people is expected to triple or quadruple. And it's the flavorings, says health officials that can be the most toxic.

"When flavorings like cinnamon are heated to a high temperature, they emit particles that aren't safe and could be cancerous," said Williams.

Perron: You think these are safer than cigarettes?

Andrew MacLean: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.

MacLean is a lobbyist for Reynolds American, a big tobacco company and e-cigarettes manufacturer.

"The idea is certainly not to market this to children so we are not looking to do that," said MacLean.

The company tells WCAX it supports FDA regulations on flavors it calls child-oriented, but opposes legislation that might discourage people from making the switch to e-cigarettes, like a tax bill.

"If they weren't smoking these they'd be smoking regular traditional cigarettes with all the other accompanying issues of second-hand smoke, tar, the combustion aspect of it, yes," said MacLean.

Perron: If e-cigarettes are taxed like a traditional cigarette or tobacco, are you folks concerned that that could just drive people back to smoking cigarettes?

MacLean: We haven't had a lot of conversation about that. We are looking to see if people are going to the e-cigarettes now because of the tax on cigarettes. So that will give us an idea if they will go back.

Rumbinas says he won't go back. He isn't worried about taxes. He's just glad he found a product that helped him kick his old habit.

"They don't do it because it's hip, they don't do it because it's cool, they do it because they want to get off cigarettes," said Rumbinas.

Last spring, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, said lawmakers should be cautious about taxing e-cigarettes if they're getting people off tobacco. His spokesperson says the governor still does not believe that smoking cessation tools should be taxed like tobacco and says he's waiting to see if e-cigarettes fit that category.

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Vt. debates e-cigarette safety, Part 1

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