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Tobacco sales in Alaska hit new low as e-cigarettes surge

David Serino started smoking cigarettes at age 18 because his chewing tobacco habit was irritating the new miniature barbell he'd had punched through his tongue.

"Smoking was the lesser of the two evils as far as affecting my piercing," he said during a break from his job stocking produce in the Point Hope Native Store.

Four months ago, after 14 years of smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day, Serino quit. He had moved from Fairbanks back to his parents' home in Point Hope and wanted to improve his hockey game. He was sick of the heavy feeling in his lungs and of the telltale tobacco odor lingering on his clothes and body.

Serino is one of many in Alaska who, for a variety of reasons, have stopped buying cigarettes and other highly addictive tobacco products, driving consumption to its lowest point since the latest available records in 2001.

Much of the decrease is due to public anti-smoking campaigns, said Alison Kulas, tobacco program manager at the state health department. New levies and levy increases on tobacco products in communities across the state, such as Kotzebue, Sitka and Petersburg, could further dampen purchases.

E-cigarettes a possible threat to tobacco market

One potential factor in the decline of the tobacco market is the emerging role of e-cigarettes. The battery-powered devices turn flavored liquids, usually containing nicotine, into a vapor inhaled by the user.

They have grown enough in popularity that the state health department now includes them in surveys on behavioral risk. And state revenue officials suspect e-cigarettes, which are not taxable under current law, could be responsible for a larger-than-normal drop in tobacco revenue last year.

"We are seeing there are increases in e-cigarette use, but it's unclear at this point whether they are diverting sales from cigarettes," Kulas said.

Serino said e-cigarettes, while not popular among Point Hope's many tobacco users, helped him quit. His parents, both Baptist missionaries from upstate New York, banned cigarettes from their home, but allowed e-cigarettes.

"I was using the e-cig until I quit altogether," he said. "A few of my friends in Fairbanks did that, but they didn't end up quitting."

E-cigarette sales hard to track

The state cannot tax e-cigarette sales as it does with tobacco products because they may or may not contain tobacco. And without the tax data, sales are impossible to accurately track.

Tobacco-derived nicotine is present in many e-liquids, but it's hard to know for certain which products contain it, Kulas said. Unlike food and other products, the federal Food and Drug Administration does not require the makers of e-liquids to disclose their ingredients.

"There's just such variation," Kulas said. "Without that oversight, you're not entirely sure what you could be buying from somebody."

Vape shops are listed under the "Tobacco" section of the Yellow Pages, but many sellers insist their products do not contain tobacco.

Kevin Collins, co-owner of e-liquid company Moose Knuckle, said he only uses eggplant-based nicotine, never tobacco, to create flavors such as strawberry cheesecake and crispy crack doughnuts.

"We buy from a U.S. company that processes the eggplants," said Collins. "And we use the highest-quality ingredients -- propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and liquid flavorants."

The lack of public data on the budding industry means sales information tends to be anecdotal.

Collins, who has an associate's degree in mortuary science, sells his concoctions from behind a counter at Sumo Vapor. He said he has seen "huge growth" in sales both at the two-year-old store and his e-liquid company, which he started in August 2014.

"As far as general foot traffic in the store, I've seen it triple in the last year," Collins said.

He and sales associate Kim Hopper said e-cigarettes helped them quit cigarettes entirely. They point to a pile of cigarette packs behind the counter, which they say are the last-ever packs smoked by the customers who left them.

Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, there are no long-term studies on their health effects. Well-respected medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic caution against their use.

Tobacco still a killer

In fiscal year 2014, 28 million packs of cigarettes were sold in Alaska, down from 53 million packs in 1996. The decline in sales occurred even as the total population increased during the same period.

Despite the large drop in cigarette consumption, tobacco remains among the state's most prolific killers. Deaths attributed to smoking and other forms of tobacco use -- not including deaths from secondhand smoke -- regularly exceed the combined total caused by suicide, motor vehicle crashes, alcohol abuse, homicide, HIV/AIDS and influenza, according to a 2015 report from the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Point Hope, a town of about 700 people, is located in the region with the highest smoking rate among adults in the state. The region encompasses the Nome Census Area and the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs.

Forty-two percent of adults there are smokers. Smoking is also well above the norm in Southwest Alaska, while cigarette use in all other regions hews close to the statewide average of 22 percent.

Serino said smoking is common in Point Hope, but he's glad he has quit and looks forward to the winter day when the ground freezes solid enough to build a hockey rink next to the Baptist church where his father is pastor.

"I felt like cigarettes were more of a weight, especially when I was trying to get back into sports," he said. "I knew they were slowing me down."

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