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Andrew Ringle

Bill banning handheld cellphone use while driving clears House, Senate

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a phone while driving a motor vehicle on Virginia roadways and which implements a penalty for the traffic violation.

House Bill 874 will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has voiced support for prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would go into effect at the start of 2021.

“I’m happy that HB874 passed 29-9 in the Senate,” Bourne said in an email. “HB874 will make our roadways safer for all Virginians by prohibiting drivers from holding a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle.”

The House of Delegates approved the bill Feb. 5 with a 72-24 vote after incorporating four bills with similar proposals. Violations of the measures in HB 874 would result in a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses. If a violation occurs in a highway work zone, there would be a mandatory fee of $250.

Bourne said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, supports making Virginia roadways safer without risking “disparate application of law.”

“We were happy to work with Drive Smart Virginia to improve the legislation to ensure that the new law is applied fairly and equitably,” Bourne said.

Hands-free driving garners bicameral and bipartisan support, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA. He said the defeat of previous bills with similar measures in past years was deflating, but that Bourne’s latest proposal reworked the language to make it successful.

“Bike Walk RVA is happy to see leadership from our area, namely chief patron Delegate Jeff Bourne, choosing to lead this issue on the House side with his bill HB 874,” Tyndall said in an email.

Tyndall called Bourne’s bill a “commonsense safety measure” and said he was glad to see support for the bill from old and new leadership in the General Assembly.

“We can all feel a part of saving dozens or hundreds of lives over the next few years, including the one out of every six traffic fatalities that is a person walking or biking,” Tyndall said.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill would not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, such as police officers and firefighters, nor employees of the Department of Transportation while performing official duties. It would also exempt drivers who are parked legally or at a full stop.

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. With a signature from Northam, HB 874 would make the same policy statewide law.

Senate Bill 932 proposed adding school zones to the list of areas where holding a phone while driving is prohibited, which is more limited than HB 874’s proposal. SB 932 failed to advance from a House subcommittee on Monday. 

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during a press conference in January that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

Highsnobiety Sneakers

Bills fail to snuff out flavored tobacco this session

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Yan Gleyzer was watching via livestream when the state Senate voted Tuesday to defeat a bill that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. As the owner and CEO of Vape Guys, an e-cigarette distributor with three stores in Virginia, Gleyzer has been keeping his eye on tobacco legislation in the General Assembly.

Prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol was also proposed in the House of Delegates, but a committee voted last week to delay the two bills until 2021. Gleyzer called that a good thing, and said the delegates will now have more time to research and discuss proposed legislation.

“We can work with them to come up with the legislation that works for everybody,” Gleyzer said. 

Gleyzer, a board member of the Virginia Smoke Free Association, said if a flavor ban did become law, more than 400 vape shops would be forced to shut down. He said flavored products are meant to help adult smokers quit, and he doesn’t believe prohibition is necessary to prevent them from falling into the hands of teenagers.

“We definitely don’t want to have kids have those products,” Gleyzer said. “It’s not meant for kids, it’s meant for adults. So whatever we can do to prevent kids having those products, we’re definitely gonna help.”

Despite Virginia earning an “F” from the American Lung Association regarding its tobacco-control programs for the fifth year in a row, the General Assembly won’t be voting on whether or not to ban flavored tobacco products until the next session.

Aleks Casper, the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy in Virginia, said her organization supported bills that would prohibit flavored tobacco and vaping products as well as require retailers to obtain a license for the sale of tobacco.

“In light of the vaping epidemic that is occurring and the youth usage that is occurring, the time is now to act,” Casper said. “I think the sponsors of these bills are very committed to getting this work done and pulling stakeholders together to talk about how we get this done in Virginia.”

Casper said she was disappointed that the proposals were delayed but is hopeful for 2021.

“I think what it does give us is the opportunity to kind of regroup,” she said. “Talk about it, you know, talk with our sponsors. Again, the sponsors are truly committed to getting the work done.”

The following five bills concerning tobacco and vapor were continued into next year this month by the finance committee of the House of Delegates:

  • House Bill 93: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes;

  • HB 1119: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products with lower maximum penalties than HB 93;

  • HB 1120: Increase the tax on tobacco products, except cigarettes, to 39% of the wholesale price of other tobacco products;

  • HB 1185: Limit the sale of flavored and high-nicotine vapor products to licensed retailers who require identification from customers; 

  • HB 1283: Require retailers to obtain a permit from the state in order to sell any tobacco products; prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented facility.”

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is the sponsor behind HB 93, which would create a civil penalty of $1,000 for the initial offense of selling flavored tobacco products and $5,000 on subsequent offenses.

Flavored tobacco products are defined in the bill as cigarettes, vapors or alternative nicotine devices with a taste or aroma of something other than tobacco. Menthol, mint, vanilla and fruit are among examples listed in the bill.

“As a long-time advocate for protecting the health of Virginia’s children, I proposed HB 93 to bring attention to the vaping crisis affecting so many of our young people,” Kory said.

Kory said she knew HB 93 was “overly broad” when she filed it, but she also knew that such a sweeping proposal would get stakeholders working together toward solving underage vaping. She also said she was pleased to work with vape-shop owners and the tobacco industry representatives on amending the bill so that it could be brought forward in this session, but time was a constraint.

“There are many more factors to be considered than time allowed,” Kory said. “I believe that continuing HB 93 under Rule 22 was an appropriate decision because this issue is extremely complex, and the solution will be difficult to legislate.”  

Rule 22 allows any bill or resolution introduced in an even numbered year and not reported out of committee to be continued for hearings and committee action during the interim between regular sessions.

Kory said she intends to focus on putting the legislation in the “proper posture for re-introduction in 2021.”

Nike Air Max

Bill to allow physician-assisted suicide sparks discourse

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to reject legislation allowing patients with terminal conditions to request a life-ending substance from a physician.

While supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, speakers at the event called the practice unethical.

“Suicide is incredibly sad,” said Dr. Mary Lopez during the press event held at the Pocahontas Building. “As a nation, we do not want to see our people killing themselves, unless you’re one of those who’s so passionate we fight for bills to allow doctors and others to prescribe deadly drugs to their patients.”

Lopez is the executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing options for people with disabilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, and she spoke with others in opposition to House Bill 1649. 

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, would allow adults with terminal conditions that will result in death within six months to request from a health care provider a self-administered, controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Such a request would need to be made twice orally by the patient, along with a statement signed by the patient and a witness.

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for Patients’ Rights Action Fund, spoke first.. Her organization is a nonprofit which aims to “oppose efforts to make suicide a legal medical treatment option,” according to the group’s website.

She said her husband, J.J., lived three and a half years after doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. If assisted suicide had been legal at the time of J.J.’s diagnosis, Hanson said her husband could have accessed a life-ending substance “during his darkest days.”

“Thankfully, J.J. didn’t end his life,” Hanson said in her statement. “But if he had suicide pills with him, he said he might have taken them. And you can’t undo that. There’s no going back.” 

Hanson said allowing suicide as a medical treatment could subject families to government pressure and the decisions of insurance companies, and that the state should improve other health care options instead.

Dr. Tom Eppes, a 40-year family practitioner from Lynchburg, said pain medication and hospice care are good alternatives. He spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia, of which he is a former president. 

Eppes criticized the bill, saying assisted suicides are “impossible to study” and not always successful. He said it “stretches credulity” to ask that physicians and nurse practitioners, as the bill proposes, be able to make such a judgement.

“Predicting death is not easy,” Eppes said. “Six months to live would include untreated Type 1 diabetes.”

He also criticized a policy outlined in the bill that would prohibit death certificates for patients who receive the treatment from listing suicide or homicide as the cause of death, saying it would allow “false reporting.”

“Assisted suicide is like cut flowers,” Eppes said. “They look beautiful on the base, but they wither because they have no roots. Physicians need a code of ethics like the original one that was written 2,500 years ago that includes a promise not to purposely take the life of the patient.”

Kate Vasiloff attended the press conference as a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about end-of-life options.

Vasiloff said she “absolutely” believes the choice to take one’s own life is a human right. She referenced her father, who she said had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks motor neurons and cells that control muscles. What kept him up at night, she said, was how the disease was going to end.

ALS received national attention when the “ice bucket challenge” went viral in 2014. Vasiloff said that trend, which involved pouring ice on one’s self to promote awareness for the disease, didn’t show people the reality of ALS. 

“You either asphyxiate from not being able to swallow properly, you suffocate because your lungs stop working, or you starve to death because the feeding tube has to be removed.”

She agrees with the policies outlined in HB 1649 because the bill is backed by advocates in the medical community and because similar legislation has found success in Oregon and other states.

“I think we owe people who serve our country and our families and our communities a better option,” Vasiloff said. “If they want to have one sliver of control over a situation where they’ve been dealt the worst hand possible, I don’t think that it’s our businesses to stand in the way of that.”

Sara Stern said her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he wished to receive a life-ending treatment while in hospice care. But because his caretakers were against the idea, Stern said her husband opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking.

Stern watched as her husband died of thirst over the course of two weeks. After this, she said she wanted to advocate for end-of-life options like that in the House proposal.

“My promise to him was to take up this cause,” Stern said, “so that other people would not have to elect that same route if that was their strong wish.”

HB 1649 is currently in the Courts of Justice Committee, which next meets Friday.

Kory did not respond to multiple requests for further comment on the proposal.

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