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Vaping? You'll have to be 21 in St. Louis County

FILE PHOTO: Surrounded by about 100 custom flavor juices and sample tanks, Mallory Immethun, 20, vapes while awaiting customers at Stella Blues Vapors in Fenton on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. The St. Louis County Council voted on Tuesday to ban the sale of tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems to anyone under the age of 21 beginning in December. Immethun, who began smoking cigarettes at 17 and began vaping at 18, will escape the ban as she turns 21 in November. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Evan Wright, 18, started smoking cigarettes and cigars early in high school. He sometimes smoked three cigars a night and began to have serious breathing problems, he said.

A year ago, he started vaping, which delivers nicotine in an appealingly flavored aerosol without all the toxic chemicals that come from burning tobacco. His breathing problems went away.

“Every day, I get the urge to go buy a cigar or a pack of cigarettes, but I pull out the vape and inhale the strawberry pina colada, and I’m good to go,” said Wright, of Des Peres.

On the heels of an ordinance that passed Tuesday night banning the sale of both tobacco and vaping products to anyone under the age of 21 in St. Louis County, vaping business owners say they are worried less about their bottom line than about 18- to 21-year-olds no longer having the option to use vaping to quit smoking.

“A lot of them are vaping because they quit cigarettes,” said Dru Fernandez, who owns Mape Vape in Maplewood. “I don’t know anybody who comes in here that starts vaping because they think it’s fun. Everybody that comes in here, they tell you a story that they used to smoke.”

Fernandez said about 8 percent to 10 percent of his customers were ages 18-21. He’s not worried about the drop in customers when the law goes into effect Dec. 1, he said. “My main concern is the principle of this. A vapor product is not tobacco. You are taking away the option for younger adults to have safer alternatives than combustive tobacco.”

Lack of information

The two products are seen the same by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however. The agency recently extended long-standing restrictions on cigarettes to vaping products, also known as e-cigarettes. Minors were banned from buying the products starting in August.

The move was in response to the growing number of teens vaping. Between 2011 and 2015, e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to 16 percent among high school students, and from 0.6 percent to 5.3 percent among middle school students, federal figures show. That means more than 3 million middle and high school students vaped in 2015.

Whether e-cigarettes are safer than conventional cigarettes or help people quit smoking remains unclear because of the lack of information on the new devices, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine and other flavorings in a vapor instead of smoke. Because they deliver nicotine without burning tobacco, they appear as a less toxic alternative to cigarettes.

The deadly health consequences associated with smoking, such as cancer and heart disease, are linked to the inhalation of tar and other chemicals produced by tobacco combustion. The pleasurable, addictive properties are produced by nicotine.

The dangers of nicotine alone are debatable. Some research suggests nicotine may prime the brain to become addicted to other substances, according to the drug abuse institute. A California study suggests teens experimenting with vaping were six times more likely than their peers to transition to tobacco.

The vapor also has been found to contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, as well as metal nanoparticles with unknown consequences from repeated exposure.

St. Louis County is among 191 U.S. communities that have chosen to ban the sale of vaping products to anyone under the age 21, despite arguments by shop owners and former smokers that e-cigarettes serve as smoking cessation devices. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay indicated on Twitter two weeks ago that he would pursue similar legislation for the city.

Other physicians and health groups, such as the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, also supported the county ordinance.

St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page said the ordinance “will dramatically decrease smoking habits, and we will save kids’ lives.”

‘I feel a lot healthier’

Despite the problems with e-cigarettes, however, major health organizations in England have found that vaping is about 95 percent less hazardous than smoking.

And while federal figures show vaping among teens has increased since 2011, smoking tobacco has decreased: by 4.3 percent among middle school students and by 15.8 percent among high school students.

Nearly nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by the age of 18, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mallory Immethun, 20, of Fenton, said she started smoking cigarettes when she was 17. She smoked a pack a day, and her asthma worsened. When she started vaping nearly two years ago, she quit smoking immediately.

“It just makes you feel so much better,” Immethun said. “I feel a lot healthier doing it.”

Connor Schwieger, 18, of Maplewood, started smoking cigarettes when he was 14, also exacerbating his asthma. He began vaping about six months ago and kicked his tobacco habit.

“I haven’t used my inhaler since,” Schwieger said. “I’ve been able to play volleyball for three hours. Before I could only play for one.”

Schwieger said many of his friends had also used vaping to quit smoking. No one he knows has ever moved on to cigarettes after trying vaping, he said, because vaping makes cigarettes so unappealing.

Ian Shepardson, 21, of St. Louis, started smoking as a freshman in high school and switched to vaping when he turned 18. “I haven’t touched a cigarette in almost three years,” he said. “Vaping helped me quit.”

The young adults also criticize having their choice taken away. At the age of 18, they can join the military, buy a gun, vote, gamble, apply for a credit card, get married or be sentenced to prison.

“If I can put my life on the line,” Wright said, “why can’t I inhale strawberry pina colada?”