To combat an electronic cigarette craze that is so established the Oxford Dictionary dubbed “vape” as the 2014 word of the year, the state Public Health department launched an online campaign last month. The website Still Blowing Smoke, part of this year’s $7 million anti-vaping advertising campaign, features bold, capital letters on a black backdrop warning that “big tobacco” wants to “turn kids into addicts.”
Virtually overnight, pro-vapers launched a nearly identical website, NOT Blowing Smoke, arguing that the vaping industry is made up of small businesses and that the state is spreading propaganda to secure funding. Proposition 99, passed in 1988, sets aside $11 million this fiscal year for a media campaign consisting of two TV commercials, ads on Pandora and Spotify, and posters in malls and movie theaters.
The mock website is perhaps the best indicator that the vaping industry is more than a flash in the pan. In fact, e-cigarette use among middle school and high school kids nationwide has tripled in the past year, according to data released last week from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This e-cigarette trend has offset declines of conventional cigarette use, the CDC reported, since there was no decline in overall tobacco use among teens from 2011 to 2014.
In Santa Barbara County last fall, 39 percent of 11th graders and 28 percent of 9th graders said they had used an e-cigarette or other vaping device, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. That’s significantly higher than countywide data in 2012 when the stats were 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively, even though that survey question lumped together mini cigars, hookah, and snus with e-cigarettes. Fall 2014 was the first time the statewide survey asked students specifically about e-cig use.
Mitch Torina, assistant superintendent of student services, said though the data is not yet public, there has been a slight downturn in the number of kids who reported they used e-cigarettes at Santa Barbara Unified School District in the past year. That said, Torina went on, more junior high students than high schoolers are caught bringing them to school. “I think our younger people are more fascinated by them,” he said.
This slight downturn could be attributed to the fact that the school board tightened its policies in December 2013 to prohibit all e-cigarette use on campus. “If you look at how they market it [with] the flavors and the colors, [the industry] is not marketing that toward young adults,” Torina said. “[They] are marketing toward children.” Around the county, 19 of 23 school districts have recently adopted similar restrictions. County Public Health’s tobacco prevention coordinator Dawn Dunn visited school board meetings when the matters came up on their agendas and displayed e-cigs, calling them “flashy pens.”
A number of cities, including Buellton, Goleta, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Solvang, and Carpinteria, have also become more stringent, prohibiting their use for adults as well as kids in enclosed public places where tobacco use is banned. The county will likely follow suit when the tobacco ordinance is reviewed this June.
In the City of Santa Barbara, e-cigarettes still exist in a regulatory vacuum — without restrictions in restaurants and in public and without rules requiring retailers to keep them behind the counter. Shops that sell just e-cigarettes are not required to have a tobacco license, and 10 stores in the city specialize in e-cigarettes and other vaping products.
Sam Maida, owner of Presidio Market on Santa Barbara Street, said electronic hookahs have been selling like crazy lately. “People love [them]. They come back for [them],” he said.
Efforts to restrict e-cigarette use statewide are winding through the State Legislature. Two weeks ago, vaping industry reps flooded the State Capitol to oppose Senate Bill 140, which would prohibit e-cigarettes from workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other public places. SB 140 is backed by a coalition of health organizations. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson is a strong supporter of regulating e-cigarettes.
As for traditional cigarettes, state legislators have also introduced legislation to increase the smoking age from 18 to 21, as well as cigarette taxes by $2 a pack. Similar efforts have failed numerous times in the past.