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Jamie Watson remembers clearly the day he ditched cigarettes for good.

It was six months ago, and the 40-year-old Magna man had just bought a palm-sized battery-operated machine that vaporizes liquid nicotine when he takes a puff. It was the day he became a vaper.

"I walked out, threw my cigarettes away, got on my Harley and I haven't had one since," says Watson, who was stocking up Thursday at the Salt Lake Vapors shop in an industrial park along the Bangerter Highway. "I breathe better now."

With lawmakers and the governor suggesting greater regulation and new taxes on electronic cigarettes, Watson and other customers at Salt Lake Vapors last week questioned state leaders' motivation.

"They're the ones wanting us to quit smoking," Watson says.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget includes $10 million from a new tax on e-cigarettes, although Herbert hasn't specified how much of a surcharge would generate that revenue. The governor considers e-cigarettes a tobacco-like product (nicotine is derived from tobacco), and the state taxes tobacco steeply.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said last month that he will propose an e-cigarette tax in the Legislature convening Jan. 26. That bill has not yet been filed, nor has his legislation to tighten e-cigarette manufacturing regulations and discourage sales to minors. A similar measure he sponsored last year died when the session clock ran out.

The only e-cigarette-related bill filed so far for the 2015 Legislature is from Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, whose HB 130 would raise the minimum age for buying or using both conventional cigarettes and e-cigarettes from 19 to 21 years old.

Meantime, Logan has banned e-cigarettes in city parks and public spaces. And the Salt Lake County Health Department recently released a study critiquing inconsistencies between manufacturer labels and the actual amount of nicotine in the vapor.

Vapers are starting to worry they have a bullseye on their backs.

A modest tax, Salt Lake City vaper Jeff Luker says, is fine.

But, "They're going to drive people back to cigarettes if they tax it too much," he says.

Luker hasn't smoked cigarettes since taking up vaping a year ago, three years after he suffered a heart attack at age 42.

His cardiologist, he says, agreed e-cigarettes were a better option.

"It's not a cigarette. It's a healthier choice," he says. "I'll never go back."


That claim — that vaping is a healthier choice — is not in dispute.

Everyone agrees that smoking tobacco is worse for a person's health because of the tar and other carcinogens that smoke carries into the lungs.

With a vaping device, the user sucks an aerosol of nicotine, mixed with flavorings, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin into the lungs and then puffs out the vapor.

But the dispute over whether vaping is harmless to users or those nearby is far from over.

Vaping advocates such as Aaron Frazier, executive director of the trade group Utah Smoke-Free Association, say research worldwide continues to find that e-cigarettes help smokers quit without harming their health or others' health.

The products were invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003 and hit U.S. markets in 2007.

Vaping products now are sold in a cottage industry of vape shops (Utah has roughly 50) as well as in traditional tobacco stores, convenience stores and even by big retailers like Costco.

Frazier's association is trying to self-regulate by complying with manufacturing standards and measures to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of small children and teenagers.

Some shop owners welcome additional guidelines.

"I want some regulation to get rid of all the guys who are doing it wrong," says Adam Christensen, manager at Salt Lake Vapors.

But public health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say there has not been enough long-term research on e-cigarettes to know the health effects or whether they are a gateway to tobacco.

The FDA doesn't yet have authority to regulate e-cigarettes, but is pushing for that.

At the same time, Adam Bramwell, the Utah Health Department's media liaison for tobacco prevention, is dubious even of claims that e-cigarettes help smokers quit.

While annual surveys found the percentage of Utah adults using e-cigarettes more than doubling between 2012 and 2013 — climbing from 1.9 percent to 4.8 percent — the percentage of those smoking cigarettes remained the same at 10.2 percent, Bramwell says.

"If what so many individuals say is true — that they use them (e-cigarettes) to quit — you would assume that number would have fallen a bit," Bramwell says. "But it didn't."


Regulators do know two things: that nicotine is addictive and that e-cigarettes are all the rage among teenagers.

"The youth understand that smoking is bad, but at the same time, they're getting the message the e-cigs are safe, that they're not harmful," says Kevin Nelson, a pediatrician at Primary Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He's worked on tobacco issues with families for years.

Nelson's concern is that young brains are especially susceptible to addiction, and that teenagers are setting themselves up for a lifetime of dependence on nicotine, perhaps in tobacco products.

"There is no reason a young person should be using nicotine in any form," he says.

For many Utah health monitors and regulators, proposed restrictions on vaping stem from the need to protect kids — whether toddlers or teenagers — from a potentially dangerous substance.

A Utah Department of Health survey of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 in 2013 found that 12 percent had tried e-cigarettes. And nearly 6 percent — triple the number just two years earlier — said they regularly used e-cigarettes.

Other states show similar spikes in teenagers' use.

The FDA has been slow to regulate, saying it needs more data about e-cigarettes as possible smoking cessation tools.

Local health departments were slow, too — at least until they saw the data on teen use.

In the past year, the 12 health departments in Utah either have enacted new regulations or started writing them, Bramwell says.

Most of the new rules are about ensuring local manufacturers safely and cleanly mix the e-juice that is bottled and purchased for use in vaping devices. The rules generally say that labels with nicotine content must be accurate and that e-juice bottles must have child-resistant caps.

The new health department rules also make it easier to crack down on retailers selling to minors.

Salt Lake County Health Department board members will consider final approval of new regulations Feb. 5.

Two health districts — Weber-Morgan and the Utah County Health District — passed regulations in November that go a step further than most: They're requiring that any establishment selling e-cigarettes or e-juice get a permit.

Health department managers say that 2013 survey of teenagers was a wakeup call, especially in Weber and Morgan counties, where the youth rate of e-cigarette use was the highest in the state. Some 20 percent of the teens surveyed in those counties said they regularly vaped.

"We couldn't turn around and wait for the state, especially after (Ray's) legislation failed," says Brian Bennion, executive director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department.

Utah banned e-cigarettes from indoor public places — via the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act — in 2012. Since then, several communities, including Tooele in 2013 and Logan earlier this month, have banned e-cigarettes in some outdoor areas including parks and amphitheaters.

In Salt Lake County, Kathy Garrett says, one of health department leaders' biggest concerns is that the e-juice be properly labeled so emergency room doctors know what they're dealing with when vapers — or their children — misuse e-cigarettes. Garrett is the department's program manager for tobacco prevention and cessation.

Marty Malheiro, outreach coordinator for the Utah Poison Control Center, says the number of calls related to e-cigarettes mushroomed from seven in 2011 to 131 in 2014. The majority of calls were about children age 5 and under who had gotten ahold of a vaping device or a bottle of the e-juice.

No one has died in Utah from drinking the e-juice. The nicotine-laden liquid was blamed for the death of a 1-year-old in New York state last month, however.

"The adults that are using these don't have a grip that these products are dangerous to small children, so they leave them around on coffee tables," Malheiro says. "The juices are colored pretty, so they're an attraction."

Nelson, the pediatrician, thinks that taxing e-cigarettes would help keep them out of the teenaged hands, just as higher taxes helped reduce teen smoking.

"Youth are very price sensitive," he says.


But Frazier, the vaping advocate, says taxing e-cigarettes won't discourage teenagers; plenty of them have lots of disposable income, he notes.

While he and the Utah Smoke-Free Alliance don't mind most of the regulations now in the pipeline, he detects a "nanny state" attitude rooted in confusion about the differences between tobacco and vaping products.

"You can't call it a tobacco product any more than you can call a fish pill a fish," Frazier says.

It's an overreaction to treat nicotine as more harmful than other common ingredients, he says. "It is addictive. So is caffeine. And this state loves its Diet Coke and Mountain Dew," he adds. "We can't legislate based on fear."

Tammy Cash of Kearns says e-cigarettes deserve none of the tobacco stigma.

Vaping "changed everything" for her when she resolved to quit smoking for her 2013 New Year's resolution.

"It changed the way I breathe. It changed the way I smell," she says. "Food tastes better. My smoker's cough is gone."

Twitter: @KristenMoulton