FL lawmakers try to take on the youth nicotine crisis, but can’t agree on vaping regulations

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Leading health organizations fear that a current state House bill will do very little to address the nicotine crisis of young Floridians.

And a bill in the state Senate comes with its own controversies, as the Florida Legislature tries to regulate vaping products that attract young adults.

From what constitutes tobacco and nicotine products to vaping flavors, the legislation has become a thorny issue that may or may not lead to compromise as the spring legislative session wanes.

Lawmakers are already moving to extend the session to finalize major budget and policy bills, including vaping regulations.

The House bill: A law with no teeth?

In December of 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges, from 18 to 21.

The two Florida bills attempt to update Florida laws to that national standard.

House Bill 7089 is sponsored by Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Republican representing part of Hillsborough County. The bill raises the purchasing of tobacco products to 21. But unlike the federal standard, this bill makes a distinction between “tobacco products” and “nicotine products.”

This distinction raises concerns for health organizations such as the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ASC CAN) and the American Lung Association, who see HB 7089 as a “gift to the industry which caused the epidemic in the first place.”

These organizations, with several others, released a combined press statement against the bill.

“The disconcerting provisions laid out in the bill fails to include all tobacco products in the definition of tobacco products which could result in certain products being exempt from other tobacco control laws,” the statement said. “The tobacco industry has caused the problem and should not be trusted to self-regulate itself and fix it.”

If this bill passes, nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges, would not be subjected to state regulatory oversight such as tobacco products.

This means that even though the federal law raises the age to purchase nicotine products to 21, these products will not be regulated by state-funded entities such as the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Heather Youmans, senior director of government relations for ASC CAN, believes the House bill creates weak legislation that will not curtail the high rate of young Floridians addicted to nicotine.

“If we don’t have DBPR checking to make sure retailers are compliant…it’s just not going to stop. It’s a law with no teeth,” Youmans told the Florida Phoenix. “This won’t do anything to impact the epidemic.”

According to the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, 25.6% of Florida high school students and 9.1% of Florida middle school kids use e-cigarettes, based on 2019 data.

Those numbers are troublesome, according to Tobacco Free Florida, a part of the Florida Department of Health.

“We are concerned about the potential for a new generation of youth addicted to nicotine,” the organization said in a written statement, “and it’s important for our community to know that nicotine is highly addictive and there is no safe use of nicotine by youth or young adults.”

The Senate bill: Banning most vaping flavors?

Sen. David Simmons, a Republican representing Seminole and part of Volusia County, attempts to cover the downfalls of the House bill with Senate Bill 810.

This bill categorizes e-cigarettes and vaping products into tobacco products. Nicotine products would face the same degree of regulation as all other tobacco products, matching Florida tobacco laws to the federal standard.

This bill comes with its own controversy, as it bans all vaping flavors except for menthol and tobacco. This aspect alone is limiting support for the bill.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican representing Nassau County and part of Duval County, spoke against an amendment to the bill that restricts flavor cartridges. He spoke on behalf of Floridians that use flavored e-cigarette as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes.

“I love the underlying bill and wish to support it. But the [flavor] ban for adults—that are using this to get off cigarettes— I think may be going a little far beyond the line,” Bean said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents part of Pinellas County, is worried that banning the vape flavors will create a black market for them, leading to more deaths caused by unregulated vaping products.

Last year, vaping-related illnesses and deaths rose in the United States due to informal retailers cutting vaping liquids with vitamin E acetate.

Heather Youmans said that the ACS CAN was also surprised that Simmons added the flavor regulation.

“Our hope is that he takes the flavor stuff out of the bill and just focus on getting regulatory framework right, and move on from there,” Youmans said.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network supports complete flavor bans as an effective method to curtail the rise in e-cigarettes use for youth.

In late February, the U.S. House voted to ban most flavors in e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes—including menthol.

An earlier version of the story did not accurately reflect the ACS CAN’s stance on flavor bans as an effective method to curtail e-cigarettes for youth. The stance has been corrected.