Carl Wheeler references a visual aid during a presentation on tobacco and nicotine use at the State IDA Conference that opened Sunday at the Carrollton Centre. Wheeler shared information about current trends and students in grade school or high school and their use of tobacco, nicotine and alcohol. Samples of products available over the counter and often used by students are displayed on the table.
Carl Wheeler references a visual aid during a presentation on tobacco and nicotine use at the State IDA Conference that opened Sunday at the Carrollton Centre. Wheeler shared information about current trends and students in grade school or high school and their use of tobacco, nicotine and alcohol. Samples of products available over the counter and often used by students are displayed on the table.
August 4, 2014



In September 2010, poison-control centers across the country received only one call per month on average regarding e-cigarettes.

By Feburary 2014, this average had jumped to 215 calls per month - more than half of which involved children under age 5.

E-cigarettes are the latest scourge in the community fight against drugs across the state of Iowa, said Curt Wheeler, a certified prevention specialist working in Benton, Clinton, Jackson, Jones and Linn counties, as he kicked off the 2014 Iowa DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Association Conference Sunday afternoon at the Carrollton Centre. The DARE organization works with law-enforcement officers, parents and school officials to educate youth to help them avoid harmful choices.

Marketed most often as a tool to quit smoking, e-cigarettes have actually enabled individuals to "get around" smoke-free air laws, said Wheeler. They have also been targeted by "Big Tobacco" as a tool to pull teenagers into the nicotine-habit, he told the roughly 30 gathered members of Iowa law-enforcement agencies.

"Tobacco companies are anticipating the spread of smoke-free-air laws," said Wheeler. "They're looking for the next big product."

The industry has notoriously targeted youth - the next generation of customers. A study cited by Wheeler showed that more than 90 percent of current Iowa tobacco users started in their teenage years.

Though a recent law that took effect July 1 prohibits the sale of nicotine products to individuals younger than 18 years old, it does not prevent the companies from marketing their products to that age group - which the industry is doing aggressively, Wheeler said. Cigarette advertisements have been shown to have more effect than peer pressure on teenage tobacco consumption, he added.

Nicotine is available in the form of candy-flavored disposable tablets that contain more nicotine than a traditional cigarette and can be disguised in Tic Tac containers; flavored snuff that can be placed between the toes and absorbed via pores as they sweat; hand gel in which the nicotine is absorbed directly into the skin; nico-water, which has made two brief appearances on the market; on toothpicks, currently being sold in a test market in Kansas; and in "cigafizz" form, a powdered nicotine similar to the sugar found in Pixy Stix that can be mixed into drinks, snorted, or eaten straight.

E-cigarettes and other vaporizers are designed to look like pens, lipsticks or highlighting markers, allowing youth to hide them easily from parents and teachers, and to avoid "smoke-free," "tobacco-free" and "lookalike" policies - though nicotine is present in tobacco leaves, it can be produced independently, explained Wheeler.

The current Carroll Community School District policy promotes a "smoke and tobacco-free" environment in all district buildings and vehicles, said business manager Gary Bengtson. However, recommendations were made to strengthen this policy through explicit inclusion of e-cigarettes and other look-alike nicotine products during policy review committee meetings this summer, said Bengtson. The school board is expected to approve these changes later this month.

Wheeler also touched on the potential of nicotine, tobacco and alcohol as gateway drugs. They are easy to access and perceived as relatively safe - the two key determinants of whether a youth will try a drug, he said. But they are connected to greater drug use and even violence rates in communities, he added. In a recent survey, 95 percent of smoking high school seniors had tried drugs, compared with 27 percent of nonsmoking high school seniors; 94 percent of smokers had tried marijuana, compared with only 20 percent of nonsmokers; and 49 percent of smokers had tried cocaine, compared with only 5 percent of nonsmoking students.

Legalization of marijuana in particular reduces the perception of harm among youth, even though they are the population most at-risk, Wheeler said. The brain receptors targeted by tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, are the same receptors engaged in development, making the impact of marijuana much stronger on youth than on adults.

"Big Tobacco" has also indicated its interest in marijuana, requesting small quantities for research and purchasing marijuana-related web domains. Wheeler stressed the history of the tobacco industry - if it modified tobacco to increase nicotine levels and mixed the plant with chemicals to increase nicotine's effect, there is no reason to believe these companies won't do the same with marijuana and THC, he said.

While a typical joint contains about 13 percent THC, a "liquid herbal incense" designed as an e-cigarette refill could contain up to 90 percent THC, leading to overdose.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has also directly impacted local Iowa communities, said Capt. Mark Heino of the Carroll City Police Department.

The CCPD lab analyzes marijuana for 17 Iowa law-enforcement agencies, in addition to its own department. Though its analysis is qualitative - is there THC present - as opposed to quantitative - how much THC is present - Heino feels confident in his assessment that the purity of marijuana in the region has increased.

When Heino started ith the police in 1987, most of the marijuana confiscated was "cut down along fence lines," he said. Now, the majority is hydroponically grown or cultured - bred, he believes, for its purity, which is evidenced by a quicker chemical reaction. They have also confiscated a number of containers with Colorado tax stamps, he added.

In Iowa, the use of cannabidiol, a different oil found in cannabis, was legalized in July for very strictly limited medicinal use.

In Carroll, the police department makes on average about 55 arrests per year related to drug and narcotic violations. Very few of the arrests are within the high-school-aged youth demographic, said Police Chief Jeff Cayler.

His officers have also not dealt much with e-cigarette modifications yet, he said, but they remain aware of the "potential for abuse."