By Jenny Lei Bolario
Electronic-cigarettes are often billed as a safe way for smokers trying to kick their habit. But it's not just smokers who are getting their fix this way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 middle schoolers who tried one say they've never smoked a cigarette. And between 2011 and 2012, e-cigarettes doubled in popularity among middle and high school students.
At a middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area, 8th grader Viviana Turincio noticed some kids smoking in class-- or at least, that's what it looked like.
"There was a group at the table and they were just smoking on the vape pen and the teacher was right there, and the teacher didn't even notice," she remembered.
That's because her classmates were smoking an electronic cigarette, sometimes called a vape pen. It's a hand-held, battery-powered device that vaporizes a liquid, which is often infused with nicotine. You inhale the vapor through a mouthpiece, and exhale what looks like smoke. In this case the smoke smelled like candy.
"My favorite flavor is gummy bears because it tastes really good," Viviana said.
Vapor liquids come in various flavors but teens prefer dessert-inspired ones, which are more appealing than the smell and taste of burning tobacco. Marleny Samayoa, also in the 8th grade, thinks traditional cigarettes taste too bitter. "It has kind of a weird taste to it, like coffee without sugar," she explained.
E-cigarettes are easier for kids to buy than regular cigarettes. There's no federal age limit for how old you have to be. But some states, including California, prohibit the sale to minors. That's why middle-schoolers turn to sites like E-bay, where independent sellers don't ask for your age.
"A lot of kids are getting them online and they're just introducing it to a lot of other kids and it just keeps going from there," explained Marleny.
She has noticed the growing popularity of e cigs on social media sites like Instagram. Look up #Vapelife and the pictures are endless. "I take pictures and do tricks, like blowing O's, blowing them on flat surfaces and making tornadoes," Marleny described.
Swirling clouds of vapor are touching down in theatres, restaurants and malls, while health professionals are trying to catch up with this new fad.
Dr. Cathy McDonald runs a center for Tobacco Dependence, Treatment and Cessation for Alameda County in California. She admitted that, "right now we don't have as much information as we would like." What researchers do know, Dr. McDonald explained, is "ten minutes of smoking an e-cigarette for a person who has never smoked a cigarette does cause a noticeable increase in airway resistance in the lungs."
But, she conceded, "it's probably better than smoke and I say that because smoking a cigarette is 4000 chemicals, 400 are poison, 40 cause cancer."
Researchers haven't had the time to do long-term studies comparing traditional cigarettes to electronic ones. But at least among my friends, the ones who've made the switch have noticed a positive change. My boyfriend, Gray Keuankaew, is one of them.
"Within the two months that I've been vaping, my body feels a little bit more healthy," he said. "I'm a runner, so I'm able to run a bit longer without having to catch my breath. So if it's gonna be any type of positive benefit, then I'm definitely gonna stick to it."
I'm glad it's easier for him to run, but he hasn't outrun his nicotine addiction. E-cigarettes still have nicotine - you choose what amount you want. The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association estimated that e-cigarette sales will surpass $2.5 billion dollars this year. Geoff Braithwaite owns Tasty Vapor, a company in Oakland that sells and distributes liquids for e-cigarettes.
"Our target customer base is those people who felt doomed to a life of smoking," said Braithwaite. But he admits that adults aren't the only ones who may be jumping on this new trend. "There's going to be that novelty around it, it's a brand new thing, it's an electronic device. That kind of stuff will always appeal to kids, it would have appealed to me."
Anti-smoking campaigns spent decades and billions of dollars to make smoking less appealing to youth-- helping cut teen smoking by 45%. But cheap prices for brightly colored e-cigs, sweet flavors, and the ability to vape anywhere is putting nicotine back on the kids menu. The Food and Drug Administration has said it plans to regulate e-cigarettes, but so far the agency hasn't issued any rules.