Kentucky legislators have filed four bills targeting teen use of e-cigarettes; Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow is supporting two

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As teen use of electronic cigarettes continues to surge, Kentucky lawmakers in both parties will be working to pass bills aimed at decreasing their use in the legislative session that starts Jan. 7.

Through Dec. 12, four such bills had been pre-filed, including one to raise the legal age to buy all tobacco products to 21; one to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes; one to impose registration and licensing requirements to sell e-cigs; and one to tax them at the same rate as traditional cigarettes.

Teen use of e-cigarettes increased to more than 5 million in 2019 from 3.6 million in 2018, a 39 percent jump, according to the latest annual National Youth Tobacco Survey.

The latest data for e-cigarette use by Kentucky teens, from 2018, shows e-cigarette use had nearly doubled since 2016, with more than one in four high-school seniors and one out of seven eighth-graders reporting they used e-cigs in 2018, the Kentucky Incentives for Prevention study found.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, most recently pre-filed Bill Request 967 to raise Kentucky’s legal age for buying all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. Alvarado chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare and is a practicing physician.

“Youth tobacco use had been declining for decades, but it has suddenly skyrocketed since the introduction of e-cigarettes and vapes,” Alvarado said in a news release. “The science is clear that adolescents and teens are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of nicotine and other toxins in tobacco products. This bill is a common-sense, widely supported measure to help keep tobacco out of the hands of kids.”

similar bill was introduced in the last legislative session, but tobacco-friendly senators blocked it. At the federal level, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has proposed a bill to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21.

Already, 19 states have raised the tobacco age to 21, along with Washington, DC and over 530 localities, although the strength of their laws vary substantially, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. Some companies see the law as a way to limit other forms of regulation.

The latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that six in 10 Kentuckians would support increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, with majorities in each political party.

Most teens get tobacco from older friends who can buy the products legally, but youth under age 18 typically don’t hang out with people who are 21 or older, so the bill helps cut off a major social source of tobacco for kids,” Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in a news release. He noted that the bill would put more enforcement responsibility on retailers.

Rep. Buddy Wheatley

“We can’t wait any longer to act,” Chandler said. “Focus groups the foundation conducted in partnership with Kentucky Youth Advocates made clear that teens in the commonwealth who never would have touched cigarettes are using e-cigarettes, and they mistakenly believe they’re safe. We have to raise the age from 18 to 21 in this legislative session,” Chandler said.

Another bill to thwart teen e-cigarette use has been filed by Rep. Buddy Wheatley, a Democrat from Covington. He prefiled Bill Request 925 to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vapes. It also includes fines upwards of $2,500 to those who would continue to distribute them.

“My bill follows the similar model our country set a decade ago, when the FDA banned certain flavors in cigarettes because of their appeal to our children,” Wheatley said in a news release. “That was the right move then, and it’s the right move now.” He added, “The hope is that the federal government will take similar steps regarding a ban of e-cigarette flavors, but until that happens, my bill will at least make sure this is in effect here in Kentucky.”

However, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. President Donald Trump said in September that he would ban all e-cigarette flavors except tobacco and menthol, but has since backed off this decision in the face of protests from users, retailers and manufacturers.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky also applauded Wheatley’s bill and said it was time to take “bold steps” to reduce the youth vaping epidemic.

(“Vaping” is a term used by manufacturers, sellers and users of electronic cigarettes, but many of the devices do not produce a vapor, which is liquid particles suspended in the air. They produce an aerosol, which has liquid and/or solid particles suspended in a gaseous medium.)

“Adolescents and teens are drawn to e-cigarettes because of the flavors and then get addicted to the nicotine,” Chandler said in a separate news release. Rep. Wheatley’s bill would cut off a primary reason kids use these dangerous products and keeps them from becoming the next generation addicted to nicotine. It’s an addiction that will haunt them the rest of their lives.”

Rep. Jerry Miller

Two other bills to combat the surge of youth e-cigarette use have been filed by Louisville Republican Rep. Jerry Miller.

Bill Request 468 would require all retailers or manufacturers of vapor/aerosol products that come with “enhanced cartridges” to register with the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and pay a $500 annual licensing fee per location annually.

It would also prohibit retailers and manufacturers from selling such products online, by catalog or by phone; prohibit home delivery by outside vendors; require real-time age verification for purchase through an electronic third-party source no later than Jan. 1, 2021; and call for fines on any person under the age of 18 who tries to purchase electronic cigarettes or related products. His other measure, Bill Request 32, would impose a 27.5 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes and related devices.

Miller told the Louisville Courier Journal in October that he recognized the lure of the flavored products to teens and doesn’t banning them, but said any such ban needs to be on the federal level. “If Washington wants to ban it, fine, that’s their deal,” he said. “In terms of Kentucky, how we’re going to reduce teen vaping, I see it as more effective to regulate it.”

The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow will hold a rally at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, in the Capitol rotunda to support of the excise tax and the higher age limit. It will also call for more funding for prevention and cessation programs. The rally is titled “Answers to Kentucky’s Youth Vaping Epidemic: A rally for laws to protect youth from tobacco!”

Bonnie Hackbarth, vice-president for external affairs at the foundation, which staffs the coalition, said in an e-mail that the rally will support only the bills that have unanimous support of the coalition’s steering committee, comprising representatives of 20 organizations. She said there is not unanimous support for Wheatley’s bill or Miller’s regulation and licensing bill, for various reasons.

“Some members believe the flavor ban should extend to all tobacco products, for example. Some would support the Wheatley bill but not the Miller bill. Others, including the foundation, support both,” Hackbarth said. “The coalition – which now has more than 220 members and partners – is led by the steering committee of representatives from 20 organizations, and all steering committee members must agree for a measure to become a coalition priority.”

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