‘It’s to protect the industry; it’s not to protect public health’: Health groups urge DeSantis to block vaping bill

Julia Boyle enjoys an electronic cigarette as she waits for customers at the Vapor Shark store in Miami. Legislation in Florida would eliminate local governments' authority to regulate vaping marketing. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tackling the youth tobacco epidemic is a top priority for health groups hoping to prevent addiction and diseases associated with tobacco use among young people.

That issue was addressed, in part, when lawmakers in Florida voted during the recent legislative session to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco or nicotine products, including vaping devices, from 18 to 21. The move mirrors an action taken in December 2019 by the Trump administration.

However, the bill (SB 1080) would do little to curb the trend of young adults engaging in the use of e-cigarettes or other products containing nicotine, health advocates warn.

The measure, approved by large majorities in the Florida House and Senate, would authorize the Department of Business and Professional Regulation instead of local governments to regulate “the marketing, sale, or delivery of tobacco products” including vaping products such as electronic cigarettes. The measure next heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

The problem, to critics, is that the state preemption of local regulations represents a “continuous effort” by the tobacco industry to prevent loss of major profits and allows companies “to aggressively target the next generation of youth,” the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in a written statement.

“It’s to protect the industry; it’s not to protect public health,” Susan Alford, Florida senior government relations director at the network, said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“No local government would be able to regulate anything,” she said. “We’ve seen the tobacco or vaping industry use this preemption as an opportunity to set up very weak state regulations. It’s easier for them to pass one preemptive policy.”

As the network said in a written statement last week:

“Years of continued inaction by the state to regulate tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, demands strong, local laws that truly protect our children from a lifetime of addiction. Florida kids deserve effective protections, not to be left even more vulnerable to the industry and its predatory practices. And our localities have the right, freedom and responsibility to protect them, especially when the state won’t.”

Additionally, following the police killings of George Floyd and other young African Americans across the nation, the health group is concerned that officers may disproportionately target Black and Brown communities for enforcement.

“With Black and Latin youth receiving more frequent citations than their white counterparts, such laws could allow for law enforcement to approach and harass children of color in under-resourced communities — simply because they have a tobacco product in their possession,” the group said.

Vaping products, such as vape pens, frequently attract young people. Called electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, they produce a nicotine-laden aerosol, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

E-cigarettes are deemed less harmful than regular cigarettes, but the aerosol can contain harmful substances besides nicotine, including lead and carcinogens, according to the CDC.

The bill imposes civil penalties for children and teens who are under 21 and purchase or possess tobacco products. A violation requires an underage person to choose either 16 hours of community service or pay a $25 fine. Additionally, the teen must attend “a school-approved anti-tobacco and anti-nicotine program” if available.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit cancer network, along with other health advocacy groups, called on DeSantis on Monday to veto the legislation. The groups, including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation/Tobacco21, said in a joint statement Monday:

“At such a pivotal moment for public health, too much is at stake if SB 1080 becomes law. Decades of progress in protecting Florida youth from deadly tobacco products will be reversed while thousands of young lives hang in balance.

“Florida kids are continuing to use tobacco at alarming rates, with one in four high schoolers reporting use of e-cigarettes. On behalf of all Florida families affected by deadly tobacco, we urge Gov. DeSantis to veto the bill and preserve the right of our communities to protect the health of their residents.”

According to the network, one in every four high school students in Florida uses e-cigarettes, which are proving “to be a gateway to cigarette consumption for youth who would never have picked one up otherwise.”

And “nearly 95 percent of current adult cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 21,” the group said.

“We’ve long supported raising the age to 21,” Alford said. “It is an effective way to keep them from having a lifetime of addiction. But we are not losing anything if we don’t have this bill.”

Laura Corbin, bureau chief of the state agency Tobacco Free Florida, pointed to statewide prevention programs as an effective solution tobacco use among teens icluding Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and THE FACTS NOW, according to Corbin.

“According to the CDC, national, state, and local program activities have been shown to reduce and prevent youth tobacco use when implemented together — including raising the minimum age to 21 years old,” Corbin said in an email to the Phoenix.

“Tobacco-control counter-marketing programs are vital to combat the influential tactics from tobacco companies, especially with the rise of e-cigarettes.”