KEARNEY — When the vapor clears, odds are it won’t be a teenager holding that electronic cigarette, thanks to the efforts of Kearney-area tobacco retailers.
“This is a nicotine product — an adult product that we won’t sell to anyone under 18 even though there is no law,” said Stacey Lauby, manager of Smoker Friendly at 1325 Second Ave. It’s a stance she said the company takes at all three of its Kearney locations.
Vaping is the newest trend in smokeless tobacco products, gaining in popularity in the last five years. Most electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have a heating element that turns a liquid known as “juice” into a vapor for inhalation. The idea behind the product is to eliminate the many toxins in cigarettes and the harsh smoke associated with smoking. Most juices, but not all, contain nicotine.
Though currently unregulated at the federal or state level, most e-cigarette wrappers state that underage sale is prohibited, but without a law nothing but conscience is keeping retailers from cashing in on potential sales.
“I think it’s great that the community is looking out for the health and welfare of our youth,” said Kearney High School Principal Jay Dostal. E-cigarettes have not become a problem at KHS, according to Dostal.
Some studies suggest e-cigarettes can be used to help smokers quit, but it is unknown whether e-cigarettes are any healthier than regular cigarettes. A recent study conducted by the University of Athens, Greece, found that e-cigarettes can cause increased resistance in the airways within minutes of inhalation of the vapors, making it harder to breathe.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the percentage of middle school and high school students who have tried e-cigarettes doubled from 3.3% in 2011 to 6.8% in 2012.
Though the school’s code of conduct does not address e-cigarettes directly, Dostal said they fall under the umbrella category of other tobacco-related paraphernalia and are not permitted on school grounds.
As retailers and schools address the potential harm that could come with an unregulated market, Nebraska lawmakers are looking to do the same.
“Even if the businesses don’t sell e-cigarettes to minors, it doesn’t mean they can’t get them,” said State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, chair of the General Affairs committee. He said he is
Karpisek and other committee members held a public forum at the State Capitol Friday to discuss e-cigarettes and whether age restrictions were necessary. Karpisek would like to see restrictions enacted but thought public opinion was a necessity before any legislation is written.
Unless his mind is changed in the coming months, Karpisek will sponsor a bill in January to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco, subjecting any purchases to age verification.
“I just think we should have something more uniform across the state,” Karpisek said. He said he appreciated the efforts of Kearney retailers and wanted a law to ensure other communities were keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of impressionable youths.
Chris Simmons, manager of the Sinclair gas station at 1206 24th St., said a law wouldn’t affect his store. Unaware that no law existed and operating as if one did, Simmons said his policy has always been to refuse the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
“It’s Sinclair policy to card and deny sale of any tobacco product to people under age 18, even e-cigarettes,” said Simmons.
Lauby and Simmons aren’t alone in their efforts. Clerks at Bill’s Liquor Store declined interviews but said their policy, too, is to card potential buyers and refuse sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
Casey’s General Store Vice President of Finance Brian Johnson said none of the six Kearney Casey’s - including the one near the high school at 1308 E. 39th St. - allow the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
“We feel it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Could we make money if we sold them to minors? Yes, but we believe we need to be a responsible retailer first.”
Lauby said she has seen a marked rise in vaping popularity in the last year. Sales have increased such that, in the coming weeks, additional counter space in all three Kearney Smoker Friendly locations will be devoted to vaping products including disposable and rechargeable units and several flavors and varieties of juice, some of which contain no nicotine.