A bill that would require e-cigarettes and vaping devices to be regulated like traditional tobacco products has found enough support to make it through the Alabama House.
While similar bills have failed to gain traction in previous years, HB 41 was the bipartisan effort of two local legislators to set rules for the relatively new industry and combat the growing trend of teenagers using vaping products.
Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, and Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Citronelle, both helped carry the bill on their respective sides of aisle despite pushback from lobbyists supporting an industry that’s seen significant investments from big tobacco companies in recent years.
It wasn’t the easiest bill to push as a freshman lawmaker, but Stringer said local parents and teachers continued to bring the issue to him during his 2018 campaign.
“I’ve got about 15 schools in my district and almost every principal and counselor I talked to told me it had become an epidemic,” he said. “One said 70 to 75 percent of their disciplinary problems were related to kids either vaping or having the devices at school.”
Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) told Lagniappe the district had to change its policies a couple of years ago in response to the rise in teen vaping. The devices are now treated the same as cigarettes on all MCPSS campuses.
Stringer’s reports from parents also track with national trends. A recent study indicated that one in five high school seniors in the United States used some type of vaping product in 2018, and the U.S. Surgeon General declared the problem to be a national “epidemic” in December.
Dr. Curtis Turner, who is over the University of South Alabama’s pediatrics program, said there isn’t enough science to unequivocally say whether vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. Even if is, he said vaping is still creating new, young nicotine users at an alarming rate.
“They’re just marketing a new version of the same drug, but users are still going to get addicted to nicotine, and some revert back to cigarettes. Even if they don’t, nicotine itself has adverse cardiovascular effects,” Turner said. “The other problem is that smoking [rates] had been decreasing for years. We’ve made huge strides from the ’70s, when over half the population was smoking. That’s now down to around 20 percent, but the youngest kids are the ones who are vaping.”
There have been federal regulations imposed on e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in recent years. Those included testing requirements for products and regulations for how vaping devices and e-liquids are marketed and sold.
State laws have not caught up, though. Among other things, Stringer and Drummond’s bill would prevent retailers from marketing vaping devices as a way to quit smoking or as a safer alternative to smoking. It would make it against state law to sell to anyone younger than 19.
“I thought there was already a state law against selling to minors, but currently, the law only makes it illegal for a minor to possess, sell or distribute a vaping device,” Stringer said. “In Alabama, anyone under 15 can’t even be arrested for something like that.”
If the law were to pass, retailers who sell vaping products and e-liquid would also have to obtain a tobacco permit from the state, comply with all FDA regulations governing the retail sale of vaping products and to post warning signs regarding the dangers of nicotine use.
The bill has already passed the House and is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it’s already faced one amendment. Stringer expects some pushback on individual parts of the bill but believes it has the support to make it to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.
Something Stringer said he didn’t expect, though, was support from vape shop owners.
To be clear, Stringer said he’s seen a lot of opposition from lobbyists but has also heard from individual shop owners who’ve been self-imposing many similar rules on themselves for years.
Katlin Purvis, co-owner of Parlor Vapes on Cottage Hill Road, said she wasn’t surprised to see owners supporting stronger regulations. She said some retailers, especially in places like gas stations, haven’t been as particular as standalone shops about what they sell and to whom.
“A lot of other places that just happen to sell vapes or have picked something up like the Juul, I think are just trying to get money,” Purvis said. “Whereas, as vape shops, our goal has always been to get people on a healthier alternative.”
At first glance, it also doesn’t seem like the proposed state law would have much of an impact on some business because many of the changes are already required by the FDA. One of the first things customers see at Parlor Vapes is a sign that says: “Must be 19 to Enter. We ID.”
“It does have nicotine in it, which is an addictive product, so we treat it just like it was tobacco,” Purvis said. “We don’t want kids to have it and we don’t feel like they should, and that’s something we’ve always enforced even when we technically didn’t have to.”
However, Purvis isn’t excited about all of the proposed changes in Stringer’s bill, especially those that deal with advertising multiple flavors of e-liquid.
The thinking is that children and teenagers are more drawn to fruity, sweet flavors, but Purvis said plenty of adults like fruit too. Alabama, like most states, also doesn’t prevent advertising various flavors of other age-restricted products, like alcoholic wine coolers or flavored cigars.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Purvis also expressed some frustration with existing and proposed regulations that prevent vape shops from advertising their products as a healthier alternative to tobacco products. However, she said there are other ways to get people that information when they’re attempting to quit smoking cigarettes.
“I may not be able to tell you that it’s healthier, but I can tell you the 100-plus chemicals that are in a cigarette and the four ingredients that are in e-liquid,” Purvis said. “You can decide for yourself.”
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