TAMPA — State Rep. Jackie Toledo almost got a vaping restriction bill through the last legislative session.
This year, with mounting concern and several deaths linked to electronic cigarettes, the Tampa Republican thinks she will have more success.
“We have a really good shot at getting this done,” Toledo said, after a news conference outside Tampa General Hospital on Thursday.
Standing with Toledo were three Hillsborough County School Board members, a Tampa General emergency physician and a Sarasota mother and daughter who were affected profoundly by the teen vaping trend.
Ashlynn NesSmith, 16, tried vaping for the most typical of reasons, she said: “Peer pressure.” Mango was her flavor. “It was the one that was everywhere.”
Her mother thought the cartridge was a USB drive for the computer, and Ashlynn soon found herself addicted. By her mother’s description, Ashlynn stopped playing softball, let her grades tank, and began to have seizures, as many as 60 a day.
The teen is now being home schooled. “She’s been seizure free for six weeks, but we don’t let her, really, out of our sight,” Erin NesSmith said. And the family has a lawsuit pending against the manufacturing companies JUUL, Altria and Phillip Morris.
Toledo said she has heard from many parents who are troubled by vaping’s growing popularity. So have the school board members. Unlike paper cigarettes, the electronic variety does not produce an odor, which makes it easy for teens to hide their use. Sometimes vaping devices contain THC oil, which means there are criminal consequences if students are caught.
"They don't know what they're smoking," said school board member Steve Cona. "It's the number one complaint I hear from parents, that the vaping is out of control."
A vaping information night is being planned at Plant High School in October, board member Stacy Hahn said.
Users of e-cigarettes inhale the aerosol from a heated liquid that contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. But the popularity of sweet, kid-friendly flavors such fruit loops and cotton candy have put the industry under increasing scrutiny for marketing the potentially addictive products to teenagers.
Those concerns have been bolstered in recent months by reports linking serious illnesses and at least one death to vaping. Patients reported symptoms that included coughing, shortness of breath or chest pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
After years of successful anti-smoking campaigns, e-cigarettes also are being blamed for an uptick in teen tobacco use. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than one in four high school students and about one in 14 middle school students in 2018 had used a tobacco product in the past 30 days, an increase over 2017 levels that came entirely from e-cigarettes.
Toledo said that, according to her research, one in four Florida high school students used an e-cigarette in 2018. “That’s a 58 percent increase from the previous year,” she said.
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Toledo’s bill would raise the minimum purchase age for e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. It also would ban the use of flavorings. State law already prohibits the sale of vaping products to anyone under 18 and restricts where vaping can occur.
In addition, Hillsborough County commissioners agreed last week to consider additional restrictions on electronic cigarettes. At the federal level, the Trump administration said Wednesday it would move to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes.
When asked what can be accomplished by raising the purchase age, Toledo cited research that shows 95 percent of adult smokers picked up the habit when they were under 20.
“In addition, we have about 160,000 18-year-olds in our high schools," she said. "So just the access alone, by cutting off 18-year-old peers that are in your high schools with you, helping you get these products, I think that will go a long way.”
Dr. David Wein, medical director at Tampa General’s emergency department, acknowledged that much is not yet known about the harms from vaping. And for some adult smokers, e-cigarettes can be a tool to help them cut back and quit.
But, Wein said, it is frustrating to see a backslide in the efforts by public health groups to discourage teens from picking up the smoking habit. “Unfortunately there is a perception that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative, and they’re clearly not safe,” he said.
Wein also celebrated the effort to ban flavorings. Their use, he said, "is an opportunity for younger people to become addicted to nicotine and then move on to smoking cigarettes. I think it’s pretty self evident that a current smoker doesn’t want to smoke bubble gum. He wants to smoke a cigarette.”