SEBRING - Why has electronic cigarette usage doubled among middle and high school students?
"It's all the flavors," guessed Austin Massey, 18, from Avon Park.
Richard Trout agreed. He pointed to a shelf in his north Sebring store, Roll N' Smokes, north of Winn-Dixie: cherry, menthol, vanilla, bacon, pina colada - 21 flavors in all.
"Every week, we sell more and more. When I reorder, I reorder every one of them," Trout said. "Blueberry is the most popular flavor. Some people have quit smoking, and they don't want to taste the tobacco ever again, but about 50 percent want the regular tobacco flavor."
Neither Massey nor Trout was as alarmed about e-cigarettes as Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, who issued a press release last week.
From 2011 to 2012, the use of e-cigs jumped from 4.7 percent to 10 percent, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," Frieden said. "Nicotine is highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to stuggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."
However, Gregory Conley found Frieden's statement to be disingenuous. Those teens in the survey admitted to trying e-cigs, not to using every day.
"That's the true hallmark of addiction. It's extremely misleading, and it's done in a political way, to get the FDA to issue harsh regulations," said Conley, legislative director, Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives.
"About 90 percent of all smokers begin as teenagers," said Dr. Tim McAfee, the CDC's director of the Office on Smoking and Health. "We must keep our youth from experimenting or using any tobacco product."
So far, neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulates e-cigarettes. Nor does the state of Florida. Twenty states have banned e-cigarette sales to minors.
Conley advocates banning e-cigarette sales to minors, however. "That has been our goal."
There's no evidence, Conley cited expert and academic studies, that e-vapor is harmful. Even if e-vapor contains nicotine, he pointed out that nicotine - while addictive - isn't a carcinogen. That's why the FDA allows nicotine gum and nicotine patches.
Trout's wife won't smoke in her new car because she doesn't want cigarettes to stink up the upholstery; however, she "vapes." E-cigarettes produce vapor, not smoke.
"The odor is slight," said Trout, who is not a regular smoker but puffs the occasional cigar.
"They make it seem like a healthy alternative," said Christian Steele, 18, who sat with Massey at the Lakeshore Mall food court. Both started smoking real cigarettes a year ago. Massey's a Newport menthol man, Steele prefers 305's.
"Full flavor," Steele added.
Neither thought they would smoke. "I always hated it," Steele admitted.
So why do kids smoke these days?
Same as always, both agreed. "They think it's cool."