GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan is one of just two states in the nation that have not banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
“I think, frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that Michigan has failed to act,” state Rep. Thomas Albert said from the living room of his Lowell home.
Michigan and Pennsylvania are the only states left with no laws designed to keep vaping devices out of kids’ hands. Federal law already restricts e-cigarette sales to minors but local police cannot enforce federal laws, so most states have passed their own.
Albert, a Republican who represents parts of Ionia and Kent counties, has introduced House Bill 4164, which would not only outlaw e-cigarette sales to those under 18 but also ban minors from possessing them. Violators of the ban would be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, $500 for second offense or $2,500 for a third offense.
“We had the bill that in 2014 got vetoed that would have kept this out of the hands of minors,” Albert explained. “Fast forward five years later, we’re at the same point. So we have to get this to the finish line because have to protect our kids.”
But Albert cuts former Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, some slack for vetoing the initial bill.
“Let’s keep things in perspective here. Five years ago it was a different landscape. I think you could easily argue we were not at the same level of crisis that we are today,” he said.
The U.S. Surgeon General has now declared vaping among young people an “epidemic” and a federal survey showed one in five high schoolers are now vaping, a 78 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.
The 2018 Youth Tobacco Survey found one in five high schoolers had vaped in the last 30 days.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports e-cigarette use among high schoolers increased from 1.5 percent (220,000 students) in 2011 to 20.8 percent (3.05 million students) in 2018.
The concern, health officials say, is that the nicotine found in many e-cigarette flavorings can have negative effects on developing brains. Some worry about the chemicals in the juices, and there’s been little research on the long-term health effects.
Albert is optimistic about the bill’s chance for passage in part because there’s a similar bill under consideration in the Senate (Senate Bill 106).
Still, there’s some opposition. The American Lung Association in Michigan testified (PDF) against Albert’s bill at a recent committee hearing.
The nonprofit said there’s no evidence banning minor possession actually reduces youth vaping, and it might harm young people who are already addicted and lead to unequal enforcement against youth of color.
Additionally, the ALA in Michigan doesn’t think the bill goes far enough because it does not identify e-cigarettes as tobacco products, which would trigger additional regulation and tax e-cigs at a much higher rate.
Former Gov. Snyder vetoed the 2014 bill for similar reasons.
Vaping industry advocates don’t want their products designated as tobacco products, arguing in part that higher taxation would restrict access to adults who are trying to switch from traditional cigarettes to less harmful vaping products.
“We believe in reasonable regulation,” said Chris Howard, general counsel and chief compliance officer at E-Alternative Solutions, a marketer and distributor of vapor products.
“We support additional enforcement by the FDA and states,” said Howard, who’s also a board member of the Vapor Technology Association, which represents members of the vaping industry.
Howard supports state laws that ban sales of e-cigarettes to minors and outlaw minor possession of vaping products.
“Not for a moment would I downplay the problem of teenagers experimenting with e-cigarettes. Nothing is OK about that, and it needs attention,” said Howard.
But he and others in the vaping industry worry that headlines sensationalizing concerns over youth vaping will lead to overregulation of products beneficial to millions of Americans trying to quit smoking.
JUUL Labs, makers of perhaps the most popular vaping device among teens, also supports laws banning minor sales and possession, according to JUUL spokesperson Ted Kwong.
“JUUL Labs fully supports this legislation and applauds Michigan lawmakers for taking these important steps. We share a common goal with policymakers, regulators, parents, school officials, and community stakeholders – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine,” the company said in a statement.
The American Lung Association argues that e-cigarette laws should mirror tobacco product laws.
“It’s important to note that the tobacco industry has a long history of supporting restrictions on youth access to tobacco products to avoid additional regulations that could also reduce tobacco use among our kids,” Kenneth Fletcher, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association of Michigan, testified. “This is also the reason they support defining e-cigarettes as anything other than a tobacco product to avoid additional restrictions on these products.”
More from JUUL:
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated. As we said before, our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solve this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products.
“We suspended the distribution of certain flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores as of November 17, 2018, strengthened the age verification of our industry leading e-commerce site, eliminated our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and are developing new technology to further limit youth access and use. We are committed to working with lawmakers, the Surgeon General, FDA, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort.”