ABC5 Special Report: E-Cigarettes in Iowa - ABC5 News Des Moines, IA

ABC5 Special Report: E-Cigarettes in Iowa

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It's the new trend in smoking, gone the way most things have these days: electronic.

In the early 2000's, the Chinese invented the e–cigarette.

It's cheaper and healthier than traditional cigarettes.  But with every new, innovative product, controversy is quick to follow.

A shop on the east side of Des Moines, Central Iowa E–Cigs, started in 2012 and quickly opened a second location, with plans for a third.

They sell the electronic cigarette and are riding the wave of a booming industry. In 2012, it was a $300 million industry. Only a year later, annual net profits sky–rocket towards $2 billion.

"The day they come in is the last day they have a cigarette and they're super excited about that," explained Iowa E-Cigs owner Corey Halfhill.

This product cuts out thousands of chemicals in traditional cigarettes, leaving only a handful: nicotine and a cloud of vapor.

"It mimics smoking in a very, very similar fashion," said Halfhill.

Smokers, nicotine lovers and the eccentric flock into the store.  The cash register rarely gets a rest from many customers who consider this a hobby.  They love the ability to customize. Devices, colors, flavors and levels of nicotine are all adjustable.

With more than 40 million smokers in the US, e–cigarettes offer a cleaner alternative.

But the Hoover building issues a warning.  Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says all this success comes from the utter lack of industry rules.

After years of fighting harmful effects of cigarette smoke, round two might have just begun. Big tobacco has injected the market with millions of dollars in advertising for their cheaper and more available e–cigarettes.

Decades ago big tobacco touted their original products as slick, adventurous – even healthy. Cartoon characters brought those ideas to eager young viewers. And once again, major e–cigarette brands use celebrity endorsements and animation.

You can also buy e–cigs online. Dozens of stores will deliver. After a window pops–up asking you if you're 18 or older, you have all the choices you need.

Attorney General Tom Miller joined 35 other state attorneys general urging the Food and Drug Administration to ban sales to minors, get control of the ingredients and deter advertising to young people.

"We're really concerned about kids starting with e–cigs and graduating probably fairly quickly to the combustible cigarette with all the health hazards we're all too familiar with," Miller said.

As for the health hazards of just nicotine, doctors wait for more medical studies.

"We're not really sure at this time what the long term effects are with just the use of nicotine without the use of tobacco," said Dr. Harry Yuan, a Mercy Medical Center lung doctor.

Dr. Yuan explains how nicotine is one of the most addicting drugs known to man. Most adults can handle it, but not the developing brain of a youth.

"The speculation is that it effects the breathing mechanism in the brain," said Dr. Yuan.

But for smokers trying to quit, many only want the nicotine.

"This is literally a miracle. I know that that sounds so overblown but this holds the promise to save millions of lives," said Julie Woessner, from Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives.

She says new regulations will only hurt the people trying to free themselves from cigarettes.

"I had tried repeatedly, like we're talking more than fifteen times I tried to quit smoking," she said.

Woessner is worried the more unique products, like the one that finally got her to quit, could get pushed out of the business from the combination of new laws and the big companies who can pay to survive them.

"The irony is that the kind of regulation that everyone keeps talking about are the very regulations that would benefit the tobacco companies at the expense of the smaller, more diverse companies," she said.

We went out to see how well the industry regulates itself.

Our 17-year-old volunteer Chris, went into store, after store, after store around the metro and came away with nothing. They could have legally sold to him. But seven tries to buy an e–cigarette as a teenager were all rejected by store policies.

"I thought I stood a fair shot at it and I thought I had it a couple times but it turns out they were following the rules," Chris told us after the experience.

Even if private policies exist, the Iowa Statehouse eventually will weigh–in.

Senator Matt McCoy from Des Moines championed Iowa's Smoke Free Air Act of 2008 and says laws on e–cigs are coming.

"They're simply running like the Wild West, the old West.  These tobacco companies are essentially un–regulated and they're out there promoting them and using all of the techniques they used to hook the past generation of users," Sen. McCoy said.

His constituents will see him on the Senate floor pushing to ban the sale to minors and taxing the popular product.

"At a minimum tax them at the same rate as we tax tobacco products, other tobacco products," he said.

Taxes that will affect local brick and mortar shops like Central Iowa E–Cigs.

"It'll probably effect us quite a bit because right now so many people are attracted to the fact that these are less expensive than cigarettes," said the company's owner Corey Halfhill.

Halfhill says the common sense behind banning sales to minors has never been an issue, but restricting flavors and adding those taxes will only hurt customers looking for a safer alternative.

"I feel that it's been a negative industry with smoking itself.  With all the negative ad campaigns with the 60s and 70s and beyond that.  That every just actually is afraid of what could happen," said.

Big changes are on the horizon for the e–cigarette.  Too popular to be ignored by big tobacco, government and the health community, Americans as a whole have not yet decided whether this new technology is a vice or a virtue.

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