From Utah to New Jersey, long-stalled state plans to curb teen vaping got a huge boost from President Donald Trump’s plan to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market. And some states want to go further than the White House.
State lawmakers believe the surprise ban Trump announced this week, amid an outbreak of a mysterious vaping-related illness that’s sickened hundreds and killed at least six, provides much-needed momentum to legislation cracking down on the young but rapidly growing e-cigarette industry. They see an opening to move ahead with hefty new taxes, their own bans on flavored vapes and possibly outlawing vaping products altogether.
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Arkansas Senate President Pro Tem Jim Hendren, a Republican who led a failed effort to raise taxes on vaping products this year, said some legislators he’s talked with this week are starting to change their attitudes. Hendren said he’s spoken with the governor and is trying to build support for a special session to consider vaping legislation, potentially including a flavor ban and higher taxes on the products.
“Those looking at the facts are seeing it’s time for the legislature to take some action to make sure it doesn’t explode in the schools,” Hendren said.
Public health officials still don’t know what’s behind the vaping-linked illness that blew up last month, but legal vapes haven’t been ruled out. Meanwhile, federal health officials this week reported teen vaping has continued to surge despite recent efforts to restrict sales of flavored products. Preliminary findings from a national youth tobacco survey found 28 percent of high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, up from roughly 21 percent last year.
That’s all providing “a big impetus” for governors and state legislators to act, said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
“We think it definitely provides some catalyst for legislative actions,” he said. “This is something we expect and anticipate. The fact that the federal government is planning to take action is certainly something that is going to give states stronger footing to take additional actions of their own.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was the first to take executive action as vaping-linked illnesses mounted, announcing a temporary ban on all flavored products earlier this month. Almost 30 cities nationwide have enacted similar bans. San Francisco, home to leading e-cigarette maker Juul, has gone a step further by banning all e-cigarette sales. Juul has sunk $4.5 million into a November ballot initiative seeking to overturn the ban.
New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, this week said he’s seeking a similarly comprehensive ban on all e-cigarette products, warning that the “health and safety and even the lives of young people are at risk.” On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a task force will deliver recommendations on new vaping regulations in three weeks.
Juul has said it will work with FDA on the flavor ban, but it will fight broader efforts to outlaw vaping products entirely.
“Full prohibition will drive former adult smokers who successfully switched to vapor products back to deadly cigarettes, deny the opportunity to switch for current adult smokers, and create a thriving black market instead of addressing the actual causes of underage access and use,” said spokesperson Austin Finan.
Republican lawmakers in conservative states are meanwhile urging action. Utah, a traditionally low-tobacco-use state, has seen high school vaping rates rise. Republican state Rep. Paul Ray said state data found 30 percent of high schoolers in some counties have recently vaped, slightly higher than the national rate. He plans to introduce a flavor ban when the legislature returns in January.
Ray, who said he doesn’t “have a lot of trust and faith in the federal government,” said a state law would protect Utah if a future administration ever decides to relax e-cigarette rules.
Under the plan the Trump administration announced this week, e-cigarette makers will have to prove to the FDA that their products don’t threaten public health. They also must demonstrate why they should be allowed to sell any flavored products, including mint and menthol, blamed for fueling the rise in teen use.
State legislators across the country have heard warnings from school officials that they are overwhelmed by vaping. Some schools have installed special sensors in bathrooms, and one Alabama high school removed the doors from the stalls in the boys bathroom to discourage e-cigarette use.
Momentum for a bill in Massachusetts banning all flavored tobacco, including e-cigarettes, has been building for over a year, said state Sen. John Keenan, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation. There has been some discussion about going even further, but legislators felt that a flavor ban would be the quickest and most effective way to pass a law that could protect kids. Keenan expects a bill to pass before the end of the year.
“Our goal is to prevent Big Tobacco from doing to this generation what it did to the last generation,” he said.
Children’s health advocates see good reason for states to pass their own flavor restrictions, even as the Trump administration is moving to formally ban them in the coming weeks. It’s possible that the federal regulations could become bogged down in lawsuits, said John Schachter, director of state communications with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced his support for a flavor ban, two days before Trump’s announcement. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat who’s advocated for a flavor ban since 2017, said she doesn’t want to leave regulation to the federal government.
“The president says a lot of things,” she said. “He rarely goes through with them.”
She is also writing legislation that would effectively prohibit all vaping products until they are cleared by the FDA, similar to the ban in San Francisco.
“If the FDA thinks they’re safe, then it should say so,” she said.
Amanda Eisenberg and Shannon Young contributed to this report.