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Four Bills Target Nicotine Products and Underage Smoking

By Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Today’s teenagers are less likely to smoke cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up nicotine. Vapes, Juuls and other alternative nicotine products have taken over the industry and sparked an increase in the rate of young people addicted to nicotine at epidemic levels, health officials say.

Virginia legislators are looking to navigate this uncharted territory by passing laws that define and regulate the newly prevalent industry. Last week, the House passed HB 2384, requiring school boards to ban all tobacco and nicotine vapor products from school buses, school property and on-site and off-site school-sponsored events. Current law only regulates e-cigarettes.

The House also unanimously approved HB 1881, requiring public elementary and secondary schools to add the dangers of vaping products and the negative health effects of “alternative nicotine” to all curriculums.

“We want to make sure the kids learn about this,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax. “It’s not just the fact that vaping is now so prevalent and kids can buy it online and what have you, which is supposed to be illegal. It’s the fact that kids just think, ‘Ah, it’s not a big deal. All I’m doing is vaping air. Why should that be bad?’ Well, there’s a lot we don’t know about.”

Keam is the chief sponsor of HB 1881 and a chief co-sponsor of HB 2384. They target the growing use of alternative nicotine products -- a trend that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently called an epidemic. The FDA said the spike in e-cigarette use could “reverse the substantial public health gains” made by reducing tobacco use.

“It’s clear we have a problem with access to, and appeal of these products to kids, and we’re committed to utilizing the full range of our regulatory authorities to directly target the places kids are getting these products and address the role flavors and marketing are playing in youth initiation,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D.

Gottlieb also criticized Altria of backing away from its earlier promise to help combat teen vaping, after the Richmond-based tobacco giant purchased a 35 percent share of JUUL for $12.8 million.

According to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending tobacco use, 63 percent of users don’t know JUULs always contain nicotine. And lawmakers like Keam say they can be physically dangerous, citing a recent e-cigarette explosion.

“We don’t even know how dangerous it is because people are dying from ways that we didn’t even anticipate. Kids need to understand, these are not toys that they can play around with,” Keam said

SB 1371, which passed the Senate and is working its way through the House, would define the products that are taxed like cigarettes to include “alternative nicotine product, heated tobacco product, liquid nicotine, and nicotine vapor product.”

“Because the technology is changing so rapidly and industries are developing around this, we decided that it would make sense to have some clear definitions of what these products are,” Keam said. “We want to make sure that we use the latest and most comprehensive definition because the definition by itself is changing while we’re sitting here.”

A fourth bill targeting tobacco products, HB 2748, unanimously passed the House last Tuesday. The bill would raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy not only tobacco products but also nicotine vapor products and alternative nicotine products as well. Speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has credited Altria for their support of the legislation.    

The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth is promoting a “Tobacco-Free Spirit Day” Wednesday, in which the organization will celebrate Virginia school divisions with “100 percent comprehensive tobacco-free and e-cigarette-free policies.”

“While all school divisions in Virginia have policies prohibiting tobacco use,” the organization stated in a press release, “only 40 out of 132 school divisions in Virginia currently have 100 percent comprehensive policies that prohibit the use, possession, and distribution of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, by anyone, anytime, anywhere on school property or at school events.”

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