LINCOLN — A prominent sign at Husker E-Cigs says buyers must be at least 18 to purchase a device used to vaporize nicotine and liquid flavorings.
Still, the sign doesn't discourage all younger teens from trying to bluff their way into a purchase, said Sean George, owner of the northwest Omaha retailer of electronic cigarettes. George said he requires his employees to card anyone who looks younger than 30.
“You get the daring 17-year-old who tries it anyway,” he said.
Under current law, George could legally sell e-cigarettes to customers regardless of age. But as a parent, he said, he doesn't want his own minor children using the devices, so he won't sell them to other kids.
Proponents call e-cigarettes a safer alternative to using tobacco. Retailers say most of their customers are adults who want to quit traditional smoking.
The battery-powered devices vaporize liquid nicotine and flavoring additives so they can be inhaled. The devices produce no tobacco smoke, ash, tar or smell, so proponents call the practice “vaping” to differentiate it from smoking.
A bill expected to be introduced this week in the Nebraska Legislature would prohibit sales of e-cigarettes to minors. The bill probably will mirror existing misdemeanor violations for selling tobacco to minors and for possession of tobacco by minors.
“My main concern is I don't think a 10-year-old kid ought to have them,” said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who will introduce the bill.
Karpisek, chairman of the General Affairs Committee, said the bill won't include language on taxing e-cigarettes like tobacco. Nor will his legislation include the devices under the statewide indoor smoking ban.
While it's unknown how many Nebraska minors use e-cigarettes, a recent survey found that 8.6 percent of high school students admitted to trying the devices. Public health experts have reported that, among middle and high school students nationally, e-cigarette use doubled to 10 percent — or about 1.8 million teens — between 2011 and 2012.
During a committee hearing last fall, several e-cigarette retailers, along with lobbyists for grocery and convenience stores, told senators that they would not oppose banning sales to minors. But they urged lawmakers not to slap additional taxes on e-cigarettes.
At least 27 states have prohibited their sale to minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The surrounding states of Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming have minor bans in place.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has called for both a minor ban and taxing e-cigarettes like tobacco in his state. Gov. Terry Branstad last week said the question of taxing the devices “needs to be approached in a careful and thoughtful manner.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration signaled in 2011 that it was moving toward regulating e-cigarettes, but it has yet to issue any such rules or regulations.
Although e-cigarettes have been on the market for more than a decade, they have gained popularity in recent years as their prices have dropped. Disposable e-cigs can now be purchased for less than $15, down sharply from the roughly $400 price tag for an e-cigarette set when they first came on the scene, George said. With 800 puffs from a single e-cig, retailers say they equate to about four packs of tobacco cigarettes.
Global sales of e-cigarettes were expected to approach $2 billion in 2013, as big tobacco companies have entered the market. The largely unregulated devices also are sold widely on the Internet.
While it seems plausible that an e-cig would be safer than a Salem, scientific studies on the devices are scarce, public health experts say. Creighton University, for example, is currently engaged in a two-year study to determine whether e-cigarettes actually live up to the claim of helping people quit tobacco use.
But in Nebraska, at least, few seem willing to argue that a ban on sales to minors ought to wait for more data.
Shavonne Washington-Krauth, smoking cessation coordinator for Creighton University, said the devices still deliver nicotine, which is a highly addictive stimulant. Research shows that nicotine alters brain function, she added.
“Nicotine overwhelms the brain, and teen brains are still developing,” she said. “So you're talking about a developing brain being altered.”
Washington-Krauth mentioned that one of her 18-year-old relatives recently bought an e-cigarette. He told her that “everyone” at his Omaha-area high school is using them.
School administrators in Nebraska are wrestling with e-cigarettes. Because they aren't defined as tobacco, which is banned in schools, some administrators have taken to classifying them as “paraphernalia” so they can be prohibited.
Public health officials also are concerned that e-cigarettes could start to unravel years of efforts to decrease youth cigarette smoking, said Cindy Jeffrey, director of Health Education Inc., a Lincoln-based nonprofit that works to reduce tobacco use. She and others worry that e-cigs could emerge as a gateway to cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco.
An Internet search produced a number of postings about vaporizing THC, the main chemical in marijuana that produces a high.
“We're starting to hear reports of other products being inserted in them for contraband purposes,” Jeffrey said.