A group of teenagers gathers after school on a recent afternoon at Palomares Skate Park in Pomona. Along with the freestyle skateboard tricks there’s beer and cigarettes — mostly tobacco ones, but some are electronic.
Sixteen-year-old Ryan Connors is a regular. He puffs on a Marlboro Light before his first run. Connors says he’s mainly a tobacco guy.
"Yeah I've tried vape, it's whatever," he says, adding that he only uses e-cigarettes when someone else offers to share.
"My friends at school smoke them at lunch," says Connors, a student at Claremont High School. "There's rules, but we hide it. Cigarettes are too obvious."
There have been two federal government studies recently that say teenagers — especially high-schoolers — are smoking tobacco cigarettes less than they used to but are using e-cigarettes much more than before. In December the National Institute on Drug Abuse released its annual study that included e-cigarettes for the first time. In mid-April, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual survey, which found that between 2013 and 2014 the number of high schoolers who had tried e-cigarettes in the previous month tripled, to 13 percent.
But the studies do not explain what is behind the jump in e-cigarette use, so KPCC decided to check in with some local teens.
Connors' story is typical, according to the CDC survey. It found that about two-thirds of teens who use e-cigarettes have tried other tobacco products.
But his story also points out one of the government studies' limitations. They don't distinguish between those who have tried e-cigarettes once, those who use them occasionally and those who use them regularly.
Connors says lots of his friends are occasional users too, adding that they aren’t going to give up tobacco for e-cigarettes.
"Taste [of e-cigarettes] is better, but it's a lot of work, you have to drip it, put cotton in it, and it's a waste of money, too," he asserts.
Connors is referring to the newest and most popular generation of e-cigarettes, also called vape pens. The hottest types go for between $50 and $200, according to smokazon.com. There is also the expense of the battery and the liquefied nicotine, which is what the heating element vaporizes.
The e-cigarette industry claims its product is a great way to quit tobacco. But that has not been proven through scientific studies.
Kacee Nicklas, 19, of Hemet, says he tried e-cigarettes to get off of tobacco.
He’s brought his scooter to the park and takes jumps with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
Nicklas says he’s been smoking Marlboro Reds for about three years.
"My stepdad, he quit smoking, he bought a vape pen and he told me I could use it. So I tried it but it choked me out," he says. "It grabs your throat and makes you cough and choke. It feels like you are dying."
The stories about e-cigarettes are similar 35 miles to the west at Hoover High School in Glendale.
As students stream out of Hoover at the end of the school day, a group of boys hangs out in the street in and around Tony Avaanesian’s car.
Avaanesian, 17, says he’s been smoking tobacco cigarettes for about three years. Like Ryan Connors in Pomona, he says e-cigarettes taste better than traditional cigarettes but he only smokes the electronic ones when they’re around.
Avaanesian says he also tried using e-cigarettes to break his tobacco habit.
"I’ve tried quitting with those ... it never helped," he says.
Rodney Barin, 18, falls into the category of those who have tried e-cigarettes once. He says he bought an e-cigarette at a smoke shop about a month ago to see what all the hype is about.
"It was good, but it didn't give the smoke that I really liked from the cigarette," Barin recalls.
Seventeen-year-old Andraki Vart says he doesn't smoke tobacco cigarettes, although he’s tried e-cigarettes. He gives the same reason for trying e-cigarettes as the boys in Pomona — they're trendy.
"When it got popular, I said, 'Let's give it a try,'" says Vart, who adds, "I didn't like it. It's stupid. It feels like you are smoking electricity."
While the boys in Glendale and Pomona are open about their smoking habits, all of the girls I ask about e-cigarettes say they’ve never tried them.
But, according to the CDC survey, girls are using e-cigarettes, just at slightly lower rates than boys: 12 percent of high school girls and 15 percent of high school boys said they had tried e-cigarettes.