By Dara Kam
TALLAHASSEE — As state lawmakers ponder how — and if — to respond to teens’ skyrocketing use of electronic cigarettes, one university student is influencing the Florida Senate leader’s stance on the issue.
Senate President Bill Galvano has made curbing vaping one of his priorities for the legislative session that starts Jan. 14, in part because his son William urged him to combat the widespread use of e-cigarettes among students.
“He said, ‘Dad, you should see the prevalence on campus,’” Galvano told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview. “He said, ‘You have to do something.’”
Galvano joked that the advice from his son, who attends Florida State University, is “usually better advice than I get from a lot of other sources.”
But the Bradenton Republican is serious about taking on a topic that’s garnered pushback from some other state leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I feel like we have to take a hard look at it, politically popular or not,” Galvano said.
The focus comes amid a national outcry over what some health officials consider an epidemic among young people, as the vaping trend engulfs middle and high schools, as well as college campuses. Also, it comes after injuries and deaths from vaping-related lung injuries in Florida and across the country.
“I’m very concerned about what I see happening with vaping and who is vaping and the medical issues that arise,” Galvano said.
Florida law restricts the use of e-cigarettes or vaping products to people 18 or older, the same as the legal age for smoking tobacco.
Galvano said he’s considering the possibility of raising the vaping age to 21, along with other measures, such as increased penalties for retailers who sell e-cigarettes or vaping products to minors.
“The age issue is big. Having real teeth in enforcement on sales to minors is important,” he said.
But the House isn’t as keen on increasing the age to purchase vaping devices, according to House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.
“I don’t know if we’re going to go that far. We haven’t worked that out yet, but definitely what we’re seeing is those who are under 18 have had easy access to purchasing it and I think that’s going to come to an end,” Rodrigues said in a telephone interview.
Galvano also is exploring regulation of vaping devices that are sold by “bad actors,” after reports that the vaping-related lung injuries have been largely caused by black-market products. The injuries have been responsible for the deaths of two Floridians and 103 cases in the state. Most of the lung injuries nationally occurred in people who used counterfeit vaping products that contained THC, the euphoria-inducing compound in marijuana, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Galvano said he would even consider “a moratorium or some kind of pause until we can have better data on what’s going on.”
Galvano, however, might lack support from House leaders and DeSantis on even a temporary ban on vaping products, such as a months-long moratorium in Massachusetts that recently was lifted.
“Everything is on the table,” Rodrigues said, when asked about a moratorium.
But earlier this month, DeSantis said he feared a vaping ban could drive e-cigarette users to black-market products that could be more hazardous.
“The problem is, if you ban the normal stuff in the store, that could push more people into those dangerous things,” DeSantis said. He added the vaping deaths could be related to the “bootleg stuff containing THC and all this other stuff in there.”
Like the Senate, the House is mulling an increase in penalties for retailers who sell vaping products or e-cigarettes to minors.
“I think we’re willing to see it regulated like the sale of tobacco is. If tobacco is sold to someone under 18, there’s penalties to the retailer and there’s incentive not to do that. I’m not sure that those types of penalties and incentives exist with the vape products. There’s a strong appetite in the House to make sure we put those sanctions in place,” Rodrigues said.
The House and Senate positions on penalties for retailers mirror the Republican governor’s stance.
“One thing we may consider doing, regardless of the CDC, particularly with underaged (vapers) is making sure the shops know that their business licenses are on the line if they’re going to allow this stuff to be sold to people who are underage,” DeSantis told reporters this month.
“Regardless of what you think about the vaping stuff,” DeSantis added, “I think parents don’t want their teen-aged kids doing this when they’re 15, 16 years old.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has launched an investigation into more than a dozen companies that produce and sell vaping products in Florida. Speaking to reporters in late October, Moody said she intends to seek legislation that would prohibit the marketing and advertising of e-cigarettes and vaping products to minors.
Mood also called for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and vape juice.
But DeSantis questioned such an approach, saying “you’ve got to be careful, because you can sit there and say you’re not going to allow this flavor or that, but people will react with their behavior accordingly.”
Nick Orlando, who owns four vape shops and is vice president of the Florida Smoke Free Association, agreed that banning flavored vape juice “would not do any good.”
People seeking to quit smoking cigarettes “look to flavors to assist them in the separation of their tobacco addiction,” said Orlando, whose association represents vape shops.
“I can tell you flavors will not stop this problem. If we take flavors away, there will be more black market. There will be more illnesses and more deaths,” he said.
JUUL Laboratories, whose exponential growth is linked closely to the soaring increase in youngsters’ e-cigarette use, quit selling fruity and dessert-flavored vaping products and shut down its social media sites a year ago. The company — about a third of which is owned by Altria Inc., the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA — made the moves anticipating that the Food and Drug Administration was going to outlaw certain flavored nicotine products.
JUUL, which continues to sell mint and menthol-flavored products in retail stores, has seen sales dip slightly since it removed other flavors from the shelves.
Youngsters haven’t been fazed by the lack of flavors, Orlando said, because that’s not what’s got them hooked on JUUL. The nicotine in a single JUUL pod — about 200 puffs — contains the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“They use them not for the flavor. They use them for the nicotine buzz they get from” the nicotine, Orlando said.
Orlando’s group supports increased penalties for retailers who sell to minors, but it’d also like sanctions — such as being barred from after-school activities — for school children caught with the products.
The association also backs banning the sales of e-cigarettes and vaping products at retailers other than vape-only shops.
“We need to restrict the access of these products to youth. We believe they should only be sold at age-restricted retailers, period. Not in a Walgreens. Not in a gas station,” he said.
But it’s unlikely state lawmakers would agree to such a plan.
“I don’t know that we would be interested in going that far,” Rodrigues said.