TALLAHASSEE — A bill seeking to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors has attracted some unlikely opponents: the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association.
The anti-smoking organizations weren't always lined up against the proposal. But they became outraged when state lawmakers added language that would go farther, stripping local governments' ability to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products.
"This bill is another attempt by Big Tobacco to weaken protections we all seek to keep electronic smoking devices and tobacco out of the hands of our kids," said Brenda Olsen, chief operating officer for the American Lung Association in Florida.
Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Ronald Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said the bill was not intended to loosen the laws.
"We are trying to have uniformity throughout the state of Florida," Artiles said Monday, adding that his bill incorporates some of the most stringent controls on e-cigarette sales in the state.
Still, he faces a challenging road ahead, especially with the new opposition.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that turn liquid nicotine into an odorless vapor. The act of inhaling is known as "vaping." Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. But critics say they can be just as dangerous, depending on what chemicals are in the nicotine.
Their popularity has soared in recent years, with vape shops springing up across the state.
Teenagers are helping drive sales. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012.
Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a bill (SB 224) prohibiting e-cigarettes from being sold to minors without restricting the power of local governments.
The House version (HB 169) did not include the language taking away local governments' rights to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products when it was first filed in October. That provision was added during a committee hearing last month.
Artiles said the provision was needed because several Florida municipalities had begun enacting e-cigarette ordinances.
"We cannot have 415 cities and 67 counties having different types of e-cigarettes laws," he said.
As the bill moved through the Legislature, Artiles also added new, more stringent restrictions on e-cigarette sales including one requiring the devices and other electronic nicotine dispensers to be kept behind the counter in convenience stores.
Local governments and anti-smoking groups, however, were focused on the pre-emption language — and its potential to override existing municipal ordinances.
Compounding their concern: the language applies to the sale of all tobacco products, not just electronic cigarettes. While only a handful of local governments have ordinances restricting the sales or use of electronic cigarettes, dozens have ordinances regarding the sale of tobacco products.
Florida Association of Counties President Bryan Desloge said municipalities should retain that authority.
"The form of government closest to the people is the government that knows what's best," Desloge said. "We would like to continue to be able to govern locally."
On Monday, Artiles said he would consider allowing existing tobacco sales ordinances to be grandfathered into the law.
The tobacco industry has long had a powerful presence in Tallahassee. Tobacco companies have pumped at least $465,000 into statehouse races in the current election cycle, records show.
Altria, the parent company for Philip Morris, and the Jacksonville-based Swisher cigar company each gave $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. The Dosal Tobacco Corp. of Miami-Dade County gave $175,000 and $37,500 to the state Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.
Artiles denied that the tobacco industry was behind the changes to his bill.
"Everyone had to compromise," he said. "The cities and the counties don't want the state to regulate (tobacco). The tobacco companies don't want the restrictions. Both sides are giving up something."
Artiles blamed the local governments for the controversy.
"This is nothing but a power struggle," he said. "They hate the word pre-emption. But in some instances the state of Florida has the ability to pre-empt (local governments)."
He added: "If they kill the bill, this is going to be another year that kids get to buy vaporizers and smoke e-cigarettes."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]