E-cigarettes on the rise among Rochester teens

Police urge city officials to tighten e-cigarette regulation

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published May 24, 2017

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ROCHESTER — E-cigarette usage has become a significant public health concern across the nation, especially among youth.

The battery-operated devices, also known as vaporizers, have surpassed traditional cigarettes as the most commonly used tobacco product among youth — with more than one-third of young adults having tried them, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although e-cigarette use within Rochester Community Schools’ middle and high schools isn’t exactly new, police liaison officer Amy Drehmer said she has noticed a steady increase, especially over the last year. She updated the Rochester City Council on the issue during its May 8 meeting.

“It’s such a huge problem right now,” Drehmer said. “I had a kid the other day who I confiscated his e-cigarette that we found at school and he said, ‘You’re taking her from me?’ I said, ‘Yeah. What do you mean? It has a gender?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s Stacey.’ That’s how into these e-cigarettes they are. They even give them names.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up nicotine with flavorings and other chemicals and supply them to the user in a vapor instead of smoke.

Although e-cigarettes are often promoted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, Drehmer said there’s still a lot we don’t know about the health risks associated with usage.

“Sellers are luring the kids in by selling the bubblegum and watermelon (flavors) and saying it is safer than cigarette smoke, but anytime you burn a chemical and then you inhale it into your lungs, it’s not safe,” she explained.

Depending on the brand, e-cigarette cartridges typically contain nicotine, a component to produce the aerosol and flavorings. Potentially harmful constituents have been documented in some e-cigarette cartridges, including irritants, genotoxins and animal carcinogens, according to the CDC.

Along with nicotine-laced products, teens have also been known to use e-cigarettes for illegal substances — like the synthetic drug Cloud 9 and marijuana — according to Drehmer.

“A synthetic drug, pretty much the only way to describe it is a mad scientist is in their garage mixing up stuff to get kids high, and that is really what it is,” Drehmer said. “When we talk about synthetics, the problem is these mad scientists are one step above the law. Once the law comes out that we are going to ban these synthetics, they already have their next potion to roll back out at the gas stations. … We have no idea what they look like, and they are odorless.”

The e-cigarette devices are so small that Drehmer said teens can easily hide them in their hands, pockets or wallets. Because their vapor is colorless and often odorless, Drehmer said, it is hard to detect, and teens have been so bold as to smoke them in school parking lots, bathrooms and even in class.

In an effort to curtail e-cigarette usage among teens, she said, the Rochester Police Department is urging the City Council to tighten up its possession of tobacco by minors and e-cigarette ordinances.

“Our ordinances, when they were first adopted a few years ago, I felt like they were appropriate,” Drehmer said. “But now, it has skyrocketed — the use of these cigarettes. The FDA has said that it has gone up three times in the last couple of years, the usage by teenagers.”

Under the city’s current ordinances, minors caught in possession of e-cigarettes or those caught selling the devices to minors are charged with a municipal civil infraction, which includes a maximum penalty of a $50 fine.

Rochester City Attorney Jeffrey Kragt said the proposed changes — which the council was scheduled to vote on May 22 — would increase the fines from $50 to $100, add a provision for community service to be part of any conviction, and create a two-tiered penalty provision to allow for handling second-offense violations as misdemeanor offenses. He said a first-offense violation of use or possession would remain a civil infraction. Under the proposed changes, penalties for selling, giving or furnishing tobacco or e-cigarettes to a minor would also be upgraded from a civil infraction to a misdemeanor.

Many on the council were surprised to hear of Drehmer’s experiences with e-cigarette usage among teens in the schools.

“Truthfully, this is really sad news to me,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell.

“In terms of the places in town to get this, there is not that many, from what I understand,” Councilman Ben Giovanelli added. “But we can’t control what goes on in the greater environment around us.”

Drehmer said the Rochester Police Department frequents local gas stations to keep an eye on what they are selling.

“We know what they have in there, but there are a lot of what they call head shops or smoke shops. You can drive anywhere and see vaporizer shops,” she said.

Drehmer hopes the enhanced penalties provide a greater deterrent toward combating the problem.

“This is a start, so that when we encounter them at the Police Department, we have some stronger ordinances,” she said.