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Officials: E-cigs could up youth nicotine use in Levy

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By Mark Scohier

Although only a suggestion, the Town of Otter Creek has become the latest municipality in Levy County to express support in keeping nicotine products out of the hands, mouths and lungs of area youth.

The Otter Creek Town Council voted unanimously last week to approve a resolution encouraging local businesses to pay attention to where nicotine items such as electronic cigarettes are placed in stores and to whom they're sold.

"We only have one vendor here," said Otter Creek Mayor Cleah Martin in a later phone interview, "But I don't think the products should be readily available to kids."

The products are very tempting, she said. “You open them up, and you’ll salivate.”

“It's a serious issue," said Levy County Tobacco Prevention Specialist Kristina Zachry. It's illegal to sell tobacco to children under the age of 18, she said, but products such as electronic cigarettes, which often contain nicotine and are marketed to children through product placement and fruity flavors, are not regulated by state or federal government or in places such as Levy County.

And use of such products, which can ultimately lead to addictions to other tobacco products, is on the upswing, she said. "We're hoping these resolutions, ultimately, will lead to a state law."

Cigarette use in America by both teens and adults — thanks in part to regulation — has drastically declined since the 1960s, which has led to the tobacco industry initiating aggressive new marketing campaigns to stay in business. And it’s working, especially where children are concerned. 

The Florida Youth Tobacco Survey done this year shows that the use of electronic cigarettes, in the last two years, has increased by 20 percent in middle school students and 74.2 percent in high school students.

Zachry said county level statistics of electronic cigarette use won’t be available until next year, but, according to the survey data that was available, Levy County statistics for traditional forms of tobacco such as cigarettes tend to be higher than the state average. In 2012, about 18 percent of students owned up to smoking cigarettes once or more during a one month period. The state average was about 10 percent. Levy middle school students in the same category came in at 5.1 percent, a few points higher than the state average of 3.3 percent.

Zachry heads up the county's Students Working Against Tobacco program, a collection of area youth from schools who speak out against the tobacco industry and how it markets products to children. Members of the program, known as S.W.A.T., have been at the forefront of getting Levy County municipalities on board with resolutions of support, even if no official ordinances have been drafted.

So far, the cities of Chiefland, Fanning Springs and Yankeetown are the only remaining municipalities in Levy County to not have at least a resolution of support on the books, Zachry said. 

But that’s not the case in other parts of the state.

Clay and Marion counties, as well as several cities in Florida, have already passed ordinances regulating electronic cigarettes. Clay and Marion counties both bar the sale of the items to minors and regulate how the products are marketed in stores and where those of legal age can smoke such products.

Aside from potential health risks associated with direct use of the products, Zachry said a lot of people are under the impression that because the electronic cigarettes emit a smokeless mist that they are safer than cigarettes in terms of second-hand smoke. “But there’s not enough research right now,” she said. “We don’t know what they do.”

Putnam and Alachua counties are both in the process of drafting ordinances, as well.

Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, who has been heading up the charge, said last week he’s hopeful the ordinance will pass.

Electronic cigarettes should be regulated by state and federal governments, he said, but, until that point, “We’re willing to act quickly.

“I’m very much a Libertarian with what people want to do with their bodies, as long as they’re above the age of 18.”