Are e-cigarettes cool?

The ads have the familiar pitch of cigarette companies back when they could advertise freely – a suave, evening-suited man, seated and smoking, surrounded by a bevy of beautiful, admiring women in sequined cocktail dresses. A “slim, charged” woman in a bikini bottom. The assurance that smokers are free spirits, unafraid of good taste and good times.

But do e-cigarettes really rate high on the “cool” scale with college students?

Researcher Deric Kenne, Ph.D., who usually studies illicit substance abuse, last spring surveyed 35,300 Kent State University students on their attitudes toward and use of e-cigarettes. Kenne, assistant professor of public health in the Department of Health Policy and Management and a member of the Healthy Kent: Alcohol and Other Drugs Task Force, was interested in e-cigarettes not only because of their novelty, but because vaporizers have the potential to be used to abuse other substances, including illicit drugs.

E-cigarettes, largely unregulated now, can be used to vaporize and inhale liquid nicotine with various flavors, but they also can be filled with a host of other products, from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to Cialis. Sold over the internet, unbranded, cheaper varieties carry no assurance of quality or content control. “What are you smoking?” is a real, not ironic, concern.

But even as the popularity of e-cigs appears to be rising, little research has been done on how college students, the prime customers, view them.

Kenne’s survey, completed by more than 9,000 students, showed that those who have tried e-cigarettes did so primarily to experiment with the product more than to quit smoking or find a healthier alternative.

Nearly 28% had used an e-cigarette at least once, and more than 7% said they were very or somewhat likely to try them in the future. Current smokers of regular cigarettes were most likely to have tried e-cigarettes, followed by former smokers and those who had never smoked.

In a 2009 survey of college students, done elsewhere in the Midwest, only 4.9% had ever used e-cigs.

In Kenne’s survey, 22% said they would try a flavored e-cigarette if it were offered by one of their best friends, and 16.5% would try a non-flavored variety if a friend offered it. The flavors most favored by respondents were fruit, followed by menthol and tobacco.

Other findings indicated a fair degree of tolerance toward the use of e-cigarettes on campus (currently there are no regulations, other than rules that faculty or administrators may establish about not vaping in class or public spaces).

How They Rated E-Cigs

Do you believe it is OK for someone to use an e-cigarette:

Where regular tobacco smoking is banned:
Yes – 32.7%

In a restaurant, grocery or department store where regular tobacco smoking is banned?
Yes – 31.8%

In a bar where regular tobacco smoking is banned?
Yes – 46.4%

During class or in another public area of the university (e.g., library, student center) where regular tobacco smoking is banned?
Yes – 22.1%

In a campus dorm room where regular tobacco smoking is banned?
Yes – 41.6%

Asked if they had ever used an e-cig to vaporize anything other than nicotine, the most common “yes” response was THC or marijuana.

About half of the students responding said they thought there are fewer toxins in e-cigarettes than in tobacco cigarettes. To date, the research on this has varied. Some places – the European Community and the city of Cleveland, among them – have banned e-cigarette use in public spaces out of concern about secondhand “vapors.”

More than half of the students – 55.3% – had no idea what the laws are in Ohio regarding e-cigarettes. Like cigarettes, e-cigarettes cannot be sold or used in Ohio by children under 18.

Most of the student survey responders said they heard about e-cigarettes through their friends. TV ads rated second (e-cigarettes ads are not prohibited on television as real cigarette ads are). For women, family members were the third most frequent source of information, and for men, the internet. By far the most popular brand identified on a list was blu, which advertises heavily and uses celebrity endorsements.

Kenne hopes to continue the survey over the next several years to assess changes in use over time. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether e-cigarettes are useful in reducing the use of real cigarettes, or whether they are a “gateway” to future nicotine addiction.