Iowa Smoking Rate Declines, but E-Cigarettes Worry Health Officials

Jan 16, 2014

In the 50 years since the U.S. government released its first report on the hazards of cigarettes, smoking rates have dropped by half. Yet, about a fifth of Iowans smoke today.

And while the smoking rate of young adults continues to decrease, about 2,600 Iowa minors become new daily smokers each year.

“Most people who use tobacco products start at a very early age,” said Dr. Karl Thomas, Executive Vice Chair for Clinical Programs at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Peer pressure and family upbringing have long been known as causes for smoking, but today, Iowa officials are worried about something they think could be a gateway into smoking for Iowa youth – electronic cigarettes.

Otherwise known as e-cigarettes, they are battery operated products that heat liquid nicotine, derived from tobacco plants, into a vapor that the user inhales. In many advertisements, there is an implication that they can be used for cessation purposes, and some health advocates worry the ads target children.

E-cigarette battery and cartridge
Credit Ramsey Mohsen

“The concern is that they are a new product…they have flavorings that appeal to youth,” said Matt Gannon, Assistant Attorney General in the Iowa Attorney General’s office. “Right now anyone of any age can walk into a store and purchase an e-cigarette.”

While many tobacco store owners choose to check IDs for e-cigarette purchases, Gannon believes the issue will be discussed this year in the Iowa legislature.

“There is definitely interest in doing something on the sale [of e-cigarettes] to minors,” he said. “You never know until the ban is passed, but I'm hopeful.”

Listeners who called and wrote in to River to River seem divided on whether e-cigarettes can be used as a cessation tool, but regardless, the scientific research is just not there to back either claim. The scientific consensus seems to be that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes, but not without any negative effects.

“Manufacturers have not been required to disclose everything that is in them, and they are not tightly regulated,” said Thomas.

“We can speculate that some of the inhaled vapor is pure nicotine, but it is hard to know what other things go in there…and the bottom line is these are inhaled, so whatever is in there is clearly getting into your body.”

Smoking rates in the U.S. and Iowa have been on the decline since 1964, although there is still room for change in a country where the four leading causes of death (stroke, heart attack, emphysema, and lung cancer) are directly related to tobacco use.

Today’s River to River guests include:

Jen Schulte - Iowa Director of Government Relations at American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network

Matt Gannon - Assistant Attorney General in the Tobacco Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s office

Dr. Karl Thomas - Executive Vice Chair for Clinical Programs, Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics

For more information on Iowa’s smoking rates, you can visit the Center for Disease Control’s website.