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You’d be hard pressed to find someone around the Capitol who thinks kids 17 and under should be allowed to buy vaping pens, which more than a third of all high schoolers concede to have tried at least once last year. Vaping nicotine has become so popular among high school students that health officials are starting to see an increase in a condition known as “popcorn lung” among youngsters.
“The chemicals that they use to give these flavors — bubble gum flavor, grape flavor — are the chemicals that they use to flavor microwave popcorn,” said Sen. Marshall Bullock II, D-Detroit, during a recent committee meeting. “And this chemical causes a bronchial condition which is called ‘popcorn lung.’”
Popcorn lung? It’s a formally called bronchiolitis obliterans, a condition that damages the lungs’ smallest airways, causing coughing and shortness of breath. And yet for six years, Lansing hasn’t been able to agree on how to ban it. This has made Michigan the last state in the country that allows teenagers to legally buy nicotine.
On its face, it would seem simple enough, right? Just ban it. Put it into law. Those under 18 cannot buy these products. Period. How hard can it be? Pretty hard when the governor doesn’t think that’s good enough. Former Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the American Cancer Society and the other health groups that vaping products should be treated like tobacco products and taxed like tobacco products.
Snyder felt so strongly about it he vetoed a bill in 2014 that only banned the sale of these “e-cigarettes” to minors. For the next four year, lawmakers didn’t even bother sending a bill to him.
They didn’t agree with taxing vaping products as tobacco because it’s not tobacco, and Snyder saw nicotine as nicotine, regardless of whether the delivery vehicle is a rolled piece of tobacco or not.
Fast forward to 2019. Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, the former House member who authored the bill Snyder vetoed, is back. He penned SB 0106, which along with Bullock’s companion bill basically does the same thing he tried to do in his 2013 bill with then-Sen. Rick Jones.
What will new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer do with the same legislation? She has about a week to either sign it or veto it before it goes into law without her signatures.
Asked recently about the bills, Whitmer spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis said, “We’re currently reviewing the legislation. The governor supports raising the state’s tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21 and she believes that we need a meaningful solution that keeps vaping products and e-cigarettes out of the hands of youth.”
The American Cancer Society is urging Whitmer to veto the bills. Their members are concerned that a straight ban “sets a dangerous precedent.”
Andrew Schepers, government relations director of the American Cancer Society, said he’s concerned that not defining e-cigarettes as tobacco will not put Michigan in line with the federal government’s regulation of the product and not address the issue in certain parts of Michigan law.
He said it doesn’t create a disincentive to purchase the products and doesn’t subject the e-cigarettes to the state’s 32 percent tax.
“As we face an epidemic of youth and young adults using e-cigarettes, it is important that e-cigarettes be regulated in the same manner as cigarettes and other tobacco products,” he said. “Failing to regulate e-cigarettes as part of proven tobacco control policies is contributing to what is now a public health epidemic.”
Outman said he sees e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device, similar to the patch or Nicorette gum. None of the products contain tobacco. However, he understands teenagers can use the e-cigarettes and refill them with dangerous substances, which is why he wants them out of the hands of those 17 and under.
He said he doesn’t want e-cigarettes taxed like tobacco because he said he wants people to use them to ween them off cigarettes. Also, his bill doesn’t preclude the Legislature from coming back and banning e-cigarettes from public places.
“Why aren’t we taxing Nicorette gum as tobacco?” Outman asked. “Why aren’t we taxing the patch as tobacco? It is the same substance. It is nicotine. It is a nicotine delivery system. Either you tax them all or you don’t tax them.”
(Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)