Forums in Missoula and Helena this week will focus on the number of kids using electronic cigarettes and on preventing a generation of nicotine addicts.

Wednesday's public forum at Sentinel High in Missoula, put on in partnership with the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program, will include a panel of expert to discuss the dangers of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco. Another forum is scheduled Thursday in Helena.

Parents have a lot of questions and they are getting different answers depending on who they talk to, said Nicole Aune, manager for the program run by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

About 60 percent of Montana’s 2015 high school seniors reported having tried e-cigarettes, with 36 percent reporting using the product within 30 days of taking 2015 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

An e-cigarette is made with liquid nicotine, which is derived from tobacco. When heated, the liquid produces a vapor that is then inhaled by the user. The vapor is said to contain nicotine, flavorings and either glycerol or propylene glycol, or both, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The journal has also found evidence of formaldehyde — a carcinogen — in the vapor produced by e-cigarettes.

The long-term effects of these products on adult health are still unknown, said Stacy Campbell, section supervisor for the prevention program. But nicotine in any form is dangerous to kids because their brains are still developing, Campbell said.

“It might be safer. We don’t know because it is so new, but it’s not safe,” Campbell said.

Montana joined a lawsuit against tobacco companies in 1997, which resulted in a master settlement agreement between states and tobacco companies. The settlement prohibited advertisements targeting kids in advertising. Montana law was updated in 2015 to prevent people under 18 from buying e-cigarettes. But, there are no laws preventing companies from marketing e-cigarettes to kids.

Tobacco company ads tout e-cigarettes as an alternative to, or for people trying to quit, traditional cigarettes. But Campbell and her team are concerned the companies are targeting kids.

The electronic vapor cigarettes come in flavors like bubblegum, cotton candy and gummy bear. The organization Tobacco Free Kids calls this the “flavor trap,” a strategy used by tobacco companies to make their products appealing to kids. While the sale of flavored cigarettes is illegal under federal law, with the exception of menthol, e-cigarettes flavors are not banned.

Blu eCig, an e-cigarette manufacturer owned by Lorillard Tobacco Co., which owns cigarette brands like Newport and Old Gold, has created a character named “Mr. Cool” who acts as a cartoon pitchman for the e-cigarette company. “Mr. Cool” is comparable to “Joe Camel,” a cartoon character who “effectively marketed cigarettes to kids in the 1990s," according to a presentation by Brian King, the deputy director for research translation in the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health.

King cites research that e-cigarettes may help to reduce the number of cigarette users, but marketers have found ways to advertise nicotine replacement therapies, like the nicotine patch, without making the products appeal to youth. Blu eCig advertisements include sponsorship of music festivals and commercials by actress Jenny McCarthy.

“The industry has to replace their users, because the product will kill you,” Campbell said. “So they are always seeking out replacement customers.”

E-cigarettes are "so scary because it feels like we are reliving the past," she said.

The Montana Attorney General’s office supported the age restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes, but the regulation of these products is up to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Eric Sell, office spokesman.

In May 2016, the FDA issued new regulations over vape pens, refillable vaporizers and e-juices. The new rules made it illegal to sell the products to minors, banned free samples and required warning labels.

Scott Gottlieb, confirmed last week as the new head of the FDA, will take charge of regulating the e-cigarette industry. Gottlieb served for more than a year as a board member for a company that sold vaping products.

The state prevention program focuses how tobacco companies target kids so parents can better educate their children, Campbell said.

The program wants kids to know how marketers try to manipulate them into buying the product. Local communities can also advocate for keeping these products behind shelves to limit kids' exposure, she said.

The Missoula forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Sentinel High School Auditorium, 901 South Ave. W.

The Helena forum is slated for 7 p.m. Thursday at Capital High School Auditorium, 100 Valley Drive.

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