By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Lisa Ciarlone adjusted a switch on narrow plastic tube, put it between her lips and waited two seconds.
“I vaped, or did I not just vape?” she asked the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare during a March 18 hearing at the Statehouse.
Ciarlone just performed “stealth vaping,” a quick drag on the electronic cigarette that created no odor, no combustion and no ash.
Vaping, if you don’t know, is the term for inhaling e-cigarettes. The small electrically charged devises work like tiny humidifiers. Users, called vapers, inhale the mist like traditional cigarettes and either ingest or exhale the seemingly harmless vapor.
E-cigarette use has grown steadily since 2006 when they first hit the market. Teenage use, in particular, doubled every year between 2009 and 2013, according to a study by the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. In Rhode Island, independent vaping shops and vapor lounges have popped up in strip malls and gas stations since 2011. They are part of a rapidly expanding industry with a dedicated following, many of whom are past smokers.
“Vaping basically saved my life,” said Derek Lucey, a former smoker who testified at the recent hearing that the switch to vaping improved his blood pressure and overall health. He said he also was able to buy a new car with the money he saved from not buying cigarettes.
Other former smokers testified that vaping is harmless water vapor with food-grade flavoring that turned around their poor health brought on by smoking several packs of cigarettes a day.
But e-cigarettes also come with health concerns. Most are refilled with a nicotine-infused liquid, or e-juice, that several recent studies have found contain unhealthy levels of the carcinogen formaldehyde.
Yet, most experts say more research needs to be done before it’s known if vaping is dangerous.
Some local lawmakers want greater oversight of vaping until these health concerns are answered and the industry becomes too influential to regulate. Last year, Rhode Island joined about 40 other states when it banned the sale of e-cigarette to minors.
A House bill this year attempts to reduce the risk of secondhand inhalation from e-cigarettes by banning indoor vaping.
“Currently, there is no regulation,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingston. She noted that there is no requirement to disclose ingredients and no monitoring of the products. “So, we don’t know what’s in these.”
Flavored e-juice also is attracting to minors, Tanzi said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of minors who use e-cigarettes also use traditional cigarettes. And use among youths is growing, according to the CDC.
So far, 15 states have enacted limits on public vaping, Tanzi said. “I would prefer to err on the side of caution than to be responsible in 20 years for cases of people who have been exposed to it.”
A large group of e-cigarettes supporters, however, disputed the need for legislation. Many run growing businesses that sell e-cigarette devices and e-juice, both online and through retail shops. These business owner and vapers don’t want to be compared to cigarette sellers or smokers.
If you make vapers go outside with smokers “you are putting them in the firing line with cigarettes again,” said Dino Baccari, co-owner of the White Horse Vapor in North Providence. He also runs a White Horse kiosk at the Providence Place Mall. White Horse is the only brand of disposable e-cigarettes sold at Twin River Casino.
“There is no harm in these products,” Baccari said. “They are a life-saver.”
Ciarlone had the last word at the hearing. She noted another significant difference between traditional and e-cigarettes: the ease of clandestine vaping.
“How is this (new bill) enforceable?” she said.
The bill was held for further study.