MIAMI –– Charles Penichet has heard about the dangers of vaping. But he's dismissive. After all, the practice is quite popular among his friends at Florida International University (FIU).
"I have friends now that are 19. … They've been smoking for, like, two to three years, and they're like pretty hardcore addicts," said Charles Penichet, 23, a senior on campus.
Paulina Nunez, a 21-year-old FIU senior, said what started as a casual habit for many teens has become an heavy addiction.
"A lot of my friends do smoke it," said Nunez. "It is just very accessible, very easy to use, and I feel like it's more socially acceptable than cigarettes."
Though e-cigarettes have come under fire following a growing number of vaping-connected deaths across the country, its use among teens continues to soar. Politicians are now trying to curb the practice by banning some flavored products popular among teens and offering treatment programs so addicts can kick the habit.
But a generation that has grown up "smoke-free" is becoming increasingly hooked on the Big Tobacco alternative: vaping. Researchers say what was once advertised as a way to get cigarette smokers to put down their smokes has become the first step on a road to youth addiction.
Vaping has become a nationwide epidemic that is filling rooms and lungs with smoke. Sleek, pencil-shaped electronic cigarettes loaded with nicotine and chemicals have many young adults hooked. Trendy brands offer "choices." Flavors such as watermelon and grape line the shelves, promising a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and a way to blow off some steam.
But health officials say vaping could cost people their lives. The epidemic has caused numerous lung injuries, killing seven people so far, and sickening hundreds.
About 4.9 million middle and high school students were "current users" of some type of tobacco product in 2018, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning they had used a tobacco product within the last 30 days. That number was up from 3.6 million in 2017. College students in Florida explained why they got hooked on the habit.
"I like it because it has a delicious flavor. It has high amounts of nicotine. But it doesn't have the bad components of the cigarettes," said Abdullaziz Kawiyani, a sophomore at Florida International University.
Joseph Martinez, a sophomore, explained the appeal.
"It helps satiate a little fidget they might have," Martinez said. "It's portable. It's popular, you can do it anywhere, it doesn't produce any smoke. You can hide it from anyone."
Wasim Maziak, a professor and researcher in epidemiology at FIU, has been conducting research on e-cigarette users and their preferences. He says his studies show smokers have a noticeable preference for flavored items over generic tobacco flavors.
"Last year we had a sharp increase of about 80 percent from the year before in e-cigarettes. … This is not a casual hobby," Maziak said. "They are kind of really getting into the serious business of nicotine addiction."
Cases of vaping-related illnesses have been reported in at least 36 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is looking into at least 380 confirmed cases.
"Once they try it, the nicotine takes care of the rest, because they're going to be hooked. So the flavor, the varieties, the design, the social network, the kind of campaigning, all that, is just to entice young people to start it or try it," Maziak explained.
Joseph Martinez, a sophomore, explained its appeal.
"It helps satiate a little fidget they might have," Martinez said. "It's portable. It's popular, you can do it anywhere, it doesn't produce any smoke, you can hide it from anyone."
About 20,000 vape and smoke shops have popped up across the country over the last several years. Florida ranks as one of the top states selling the products in convenience stores. In party cities like Miami, vape shop owners say business is booming.
"It's a very touristic place, everybody wants to have fun, and when they want to have fun, they want to smoke a little," said Zayra Morales, a manager at the Vape and Smoke Shop in Miami.
While many states have passed some sort of law to regulate vaping, many are going after the flavors that appeal to youngsters. New York became the first state in the nation to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. States including Michigan and California have also announced bans. Florida currently has pending legislation to ban flavored e-cigs. Now, even the feds are stepping in.
The Trump administration is working with the Food and Drug Administration to remove all non-tobacco flavors, including mint and menthol, from the national market. After the shelves are cleared, companies may be able to reintroduce their flavors if they submit a formal application and get the green light from the FDA.
"I think you're depriving the industry from one of the most important recruiting tools for youth by removing flavor," Maziak said. "But as we know from the tobacco industry, it is going to be a complex story."