AKRON, Ohio -- Parents of teens should be on the lookout for a new smoking trend that is slowly making its way into schools.
For years, kids have been educated on the health risks of tobacco use and cigarettes. However, with growing popularity of the e-cigarette, teens believe they have found a safer alternative and their use among minors is growing rapidly.
"The e-cigarettes, from what we have seen have pretty much doubled in use for teenagers over the last couple of years. They have been very popular with teens in middle school and high school," said Inspector Bill Holland of the Summit County Sheriff's Office.
E-cigarettes are advertised as "guilt free" due to the fact that they produce an odorless vapor, rather than toxic smoke.
And although the state of Ohio regulates the sale of traditional tobacco cigarettes to minors there is no such law regarding the sale of electronic cigarettes.
A bill that has already passed the Ohio House of Representative and is now before a Senate committee would create such regulation.
It states, "to include alternative nicotine products within the restrictions that apply to the sale or distribution to and the possession or use by minors of cigarettes and other tobacco products."
The bill is welcomed by Akron Children's Hospital Clinical Pharmacologist and Toxicologist Michelle Bestic.
"It's a concern because we don't know the long-term ramifications of the e-cigarettes; we don't know the long-term cardiovascular risks; we don't know if it puts you at the same degree for hypertension or stroke. There's just not enough literature out there for us to determine the safety. We don't know if those children, after they kind of get over the e-cigarettes, if they will go on to the traditional cigarettes or not, if they can use them for other more unsavory things," said Bestic.
The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents more than 60 members, acknowledges among its published 'Facts about Electronic Cigarettes' that nicotine is a highly addictive substance.
Their literature also addresses the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors:
"Electronic cigarettes are intended for committed smokers of the legal age to smoke. e industry advocates proper labeling, encourages retailers to check identification of customers, and insists that electronic cigarette companies in good standing validate age prior to transacting online purchases. The ECA (Electronic Cigarette Association) has gone a step further and required proper labeling and identification for all its members to establish and continue their membership. In a recent industry study that included a random sample of U.S. electronic cigarette consumers, the average respondent's age was 44 years old. Further, with an average product price of about $100, electronic cigarettes can hardly be considered kid-friendly"
Although electronic cigarettes can be lawfully sold to anyone in the state of Ohio, law enforcers have additional concerns.
"What we have been seeing, not here, but law enforcement in general, and I'm sure it's coming to Summit County at some point, if it's not already here, is people using the e-cigarettes to put marijuana oil or THC oil in them to get high," said Holland, who admits it is harder for parents and law enforcement officers to detect.
"It's somewhat of a masked use, because it doesn't put off the same smoke or odors that smoking marijuana generally does, so it seems to go under the radar," said Holland, adding, "somebody could be sitting in school or in a restaurant and be smoking and ingesting marijuana and getting high. I mean, they could be sitting next to a law enforcement doing so because like I said it's not going to give off the same odor that smoking marijuana generally does."
For their intended purpose, e-cigarettes give users the satisfaction of an oral fixation of smoking, without the smoke.
Users of the e-cigarettes expect to be able to smoke in normally prohibited places, like restaurants and shopping malls, without the complaints of second-hand smoke.
But experts say, for minors, the electronic cigarettes can be a gateway to start a habit that can have long-term health risks or even drug use.
The new law needs to pass through the senate and have the governor's signature before it can be enforced in Ohio.
In the meantime, experts recommend parents pay close attention to what their children are bringing home, safeguard their own electronic cigarettes, and do not assume teenagers using the cigarettes are ingesting harmless vapor.
"You need to know what it's being used for -- if something shows up in your house, whether it's an e-cigarette or some other device, 'hey what's this for?' and it basically comes down to an open communication with your children," said Holland.