(WJHL)- Lawmakers in Virginia and Tennessee are under pressure to respond to what many are calling a vaping epidemic.
This comes amid a surge in youth use and an ongoing investigation of more than 2 thousand reported cases of a “vaping-related respiratory illness” that’s resulted in at least 39 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC has said products containing illicit THC have been linked to most cases but many different substances are still under investigation.
Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said he’s expecting vaping regulation to be a focus next session.
“We know legislation is already being drafted because lawmakers are hearing from so many constituents who are concerned,” Crowe said.
The Tennessee Medical Association is among the groups calling for Gov. Bill Lee to follow suit with states who’ve used executive power to impose a temporary ban on flavored vape products.
The association’s October 8th letter reads, in part:
“Tennessee physicians are most concerned that products like Juul and others are disproportionately marketed to, purchased and used by younger consumers, including adolescents. Some are even packaged like juice boxes, candy or other kids’ products. The nicotine is of course addictive and harmful to their developing lungs, but the additional chemicals may also obstruct appropriate brain development. Data shows that 4 in 5 kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product.”Elise C. Denneny, MD President – Tennessee Medical Associatio
Landon Combs, a Tennessee Medical Association board member and pediatrician with Ballad Health, said he’d like to see lawmakers take more permanent action by passing legislation to ban flavored vape products.
Crowe said he’s proceeding with caution. “Is Tennessee moving too slow, you know, it probably isn’t because it’s a good thing to take your time and make sure you’re doing it the right way before you go ahead and pass in a frenzy legislation or put in place rules and regulations before we know what the real situation is,” he said.
Still, the threat of a flavor ban is keeping business owners like David Nelson on their toes.
Nelson owns Rocky Top Vapor, a company that manufactures its own products to supply its five Northeast Tennessee stores.
“We’ve pretty much stopped a lot of our production because we’ve got a lot of extra products that we need to kind of push through if a flavor ban were to happen,” Nelson said. “95 percent of our products that we sell are flavored products so only having tobacco and menthol, you’re just not going to make it. It’s going to put a lot of vape shops out of business.”
A database tracking vaping regulations in all 50 states, published by the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, shows state vaping regulations vary widely across the country.
According to the review, 19 states and the District of Columbia have imposed a special tax or excise taxes on e-cigarettes. Ten of those taxes took effect in 2019 and two are still to come in 2020.
According to Mark Meaney, deputy director of the Public Health Law Center’s Commercial Tobacco Control Program, some states tax e-cigarettes per milliliter of liquid and others tax a percentage of the wholesale price.
“Tobacco taxes have historically been one of the most effective ways to decrease use, especially among kids,” Meaney said.
Tennessee and Virginia have yet to pass either tax.
Plus, neither state requires a license for the retail sale of e-cigarettes or e-cigarette liquid as 26 states and D.C. do.
“Licensing is one of the most effective and I think one of the most powerful tools that state and local governments can enact,” Meaney said.
Meaney said licensing allows each state to track vaping vendors and compliance. He said it also provides a penalty process that may help prevent underaged sales.
Several states are also increasing age restrictions on tobacco products to reduce youth use.
In 2019, Virginia increased its legal age to 21, joining 16 other states and D.C. In 4 states, the legal age is 19. In Tennessee, it’s still 18.
Nelson said several vape shop owners would support increasing the legal age in Tennessee and licensure laws.
“It legitimizes our industry even further,” he said.
However, Nelson opposes additional taxes on vaping products. He said it could deter consumers from trading in traditional cigarettes.
“We want to have that opportunity to sit down with lawmakers to discuss sensible regulations that can keep it out of the hands of youth but also keep it available for adults,” he said.