TALLAHASSEE — As electronic cigarettes become increasingly trendy, Florida lawmakers are taking steps to keep the devices out of teenagers' hands.
On Thursday, a Senate panel approved a proposal that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
"We don't allow minors to buy cigarettes," said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. "We should certainly not allow minors to buy these products, as well."
Senate Bill 224 had already won the unanimous support of two other committees. It likely will be among the first proposals heard on the Senate floor when the legislative session begins March 4.
The House version, sponsored by Republican Reps. Frank Artiles of Miami and Doc Renuart of Ponte Vedra Beach, won the support of its first committee earlier this week. It, too, is on a fast track.
The movement comes as municipalities and school systems grapple with regulating the devices.
Several cities in South Florida have already outlawed the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
The Pinellas County School Board has banned the use of e-cigarettes on school property, as has the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
E-cigarettes are battery operated, and come in various colors and flavors. The devices heat up cartridges of liquid nicotine, turning it into an odorless vapor that users can inhale, or "vape."
Proponents say e-cigarettes are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes because they do not contain tobacco. But critics say it is impossible to know what chemicals are in the liquid nicotine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to do a conclusive study.
"Consumers currently don't know the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products," according to the FDA website.
E-cigarettes were once considered chic by the celebrity set. But the devices are becoming more mainstream — and finding their way into the hands of teenagers.
A recent study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes had more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.
"We think it's time now that we drew the line in the sand, so children could not have access to those products and not develop those habits down the line," Benacquisto said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed.
But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, asked for more information about risks associated with nicotine use.
"My concern with cigarettes has been the tar and the carcinogens associated with smoking," he said. "I've never seen any studies that (say) the nicotine is any more damaging than the caffeine we have in the morning."
Benacquisto pointed out that e-cigarettes have a more concentrated dose of nicotine than traditional cigarettes.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she would "rather err on the side of protecting young people."
"I see this as the beginning of an effort to get ahead of the curve," she said.
Artiles doesn't anticipate any major roadblocks in the House.
"Instead of over-regulating an industry, we want to say 'If you are under 18, you cannot purchase e-cigarettes,' " he said. "It's as easy as that."
He is leaning on his colleagues to act swiftly. "If we don't pass this bill this year, it's another year that kids can purchase these things and possibly develop an addiction," he said.
Times staff writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.