TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would make electronic cigarettes off limits to young people won unanimous support on Wednesday in the Florida House.
Anti-smoking groups had been working against the proposal, largely because of a provision that would have prevented local governments from creating their own rules on e-cigarettes and tobacco products.
But on Tuesday, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, assembled a bipartisan coalition that stripped the controversial language from the bill.
Rep. Frank Artiles, the bill sponsor, insisted that the provision would have made the bill stronger. He supports a statewide policy on e-cigarette sales.
Still, the Miami Republican said he was pleased to see the bill advance.
"At the end of the day, the state of Florida has acted before the federal government in protecting our children from contaminating their lungs with vaporizing devices and e-cigarettes," he said.
The Senate has already passed a proposal prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors (SB 224). But because the House approved additional rules on how e-cigarettes can be displayed in stores, the upper chamber must weigh in again.
Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who championed the bill in the Senate, said she remained a "strong proponent" of her version of the bill. Late Wednesday, she filed an amendment that would bring the House version closer to the Senate's.
Battery-operated e-cigarettes turn liquid nicotine into an odorless vapor. They do not contain tobacco. But critics say electronic cigarettes can be just as dangerous as traditional cigarettes, depending on what chemicals are in the nicotine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to propose rules for e-cigarettes as early as this month.
Artiles said he became interested in the issue after seeing a preteen smoke an electronic cigarette at a Miami-Dade water park. He later asked a middle-school teacher to find out how many of her students had tried "vaping," the slang term for smoking an e-cigarette. About 60 percent said they had.
There was no opposition to the concept at the heart of HB 169: a ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, those under the age of 18.
But the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society disliked three lines that would have prohibited cities and counties from passing stricter ordinances in the future.
On Tuesday, Artiles agreed to let local governments pass ordinances about nicotine products — but not electronic cigarettes.
"Uniformity is something we need in the state of Florida," Artiles said, adding that gas station and convenience store owners would be confused by a patchwork of local ordinances governing e-cigarette sales.
Artiles also agreed to let existing municipal ordinances about e-cigarettes remain on the books.
But that wasn't enough for Hager, who said local governments needed the flexibility to change their laws as new products and chemicals emerge. House Democrats and nearly 30 Republicans sided with him.
"More than anything, we wanted to make sure local communities have the right to enact stronger policies if they choose to," said Michael Holtz, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. "That was our bottom line."
The House approved the amended proposal Wednesday.
Lawmakers said they predicted e-cigarettes would become a perennial issue.
"This is just the start of what we have to do as this new technology is unfolding," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.