TAMPA, Fla. - Seemingly out of nowhere, e-cigarettes have become a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Even though most people use them as what they believe is a safer alternative to cigarettes, WFTS-TV investigators have discovered some are using the electronic devices for illegal purposes.
E-cigarettes and similar devices called vaporizer pens are turning up in convenience stores and smoke shops across the country, where they are marketed as an alternative to cigarettes.
But others are using the devices to break marijuana laws.
"Pulling out this at a baseball game or at a restaurant and taking a hit on this looks about as natural as anything," said a man in a YouTube video touting ways to use e-cigarettes to avoid detection when using drugs.
Because it releases a vapor, rather than traditional smoke, an e-cigarette does not have as noticeable an aroma as traditional marijuana or hash cigarettes.
In the Tampa Bay area, law enforcement agencies say they haven't made many arrests involving e-cigarette type devices so far, but it's a trend they are closely watching, as e-cigarettes become more popular nationwide.
Instructional videos are popping up on YouTube showing people how to use e-cigarettes to take drugs, even reviewing certain models.
"There's a lot of people who try to abuse it," said Barry Gray, who owns Smoker's Vapor in St. Petersburg, Fla.
She says she's helped hundreds of people leave cigarettes behind.
But she's also seen other local merchants selling similar devices specifically designed for marijuana and hash.
"There are devices, vaporizers and the like, that are sold specifically for such purposes," said a woman who identified herself only as Ashley, who works at a local smoke shop.
She says those devices are growing in popularity, especially in states where medical marijuana is legal.
"When you have the ability to have a vaporizer, it just creates a vapor free of chemicals. It's a healthy alternative, no matter what you put in it," Ashley said.
"Because the regulations aren't there to keep the kids from purchasing or even getting their hands on them, it's really getting to be dangerous," said Brittany McNaughton of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance.
Recent surveys indicate nearly a third of Hillsborough County high school students admit they've used marijuana. Only 23 percent say they've ever smoked cigarettes.
Students are among the customers McNaughton fears stores are now targeting.
"Whether they're going to buy Skittles or juice or what have you, they're seeing these products. So they're constantly exposed to these products at the store s and that's another one of the tactics they use to try to draw in the youth," McNaughton said.
Currently, e-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA.
Even though most stores won't sell them to customers under 18, there's currently nothing to keep them from doing it.
A spokesman for the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association says the association is pushing for regulation that would ban the sale of vaporizers used for smoking marijuana and other drugs.
(Adam Walser is an investigative reporter at Scripps station WFTS-TV in Tampa, Fla. Reach him at www.abcactionnews.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)