Hillsborough commissioners consider new restrictions on teen use of vaping products

The board asked county staff to bring back proposals. One commissioner termed the vaping phenomenon a "serious public health issue.''
A high school student in Massachusetts uses a vaping device near a school campus last year. In Hillsborough County, officials are considering new restrictions on teen use of vaping devices,
A high school student in Massachusetts uses a vaping device near a school campus last year. In Hillsborough County, officials are considering new restrictions on teen use of vaping devices, [ Associated Press ]
Published Sept. 5, 2019|Updated Feb. 19, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Thursday to consider new restrictions on the purchase of vaping products by underage users.

The board voted unanimously to support Commissioner Sandy Murman’s request to have the county’s legal staff bring back a list of vaping restrictions that could be written into county ordinances. If that support remains, and the commission does pass age-based vape restrictions, Hillsborough County would become the first local government in Florida to do so.

“I just want us to have a more robust discussion and see as many good ideas as possible on how we could work with the Sheriff’s office to correct what I think is a serious public health issue,” Murman told the board Thursday.

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 as bubble gum, fruit loops and cotton candy have put the industry under increasing scrutiny for marketing the potentially addictive and harmful 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.

The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week they are investigating 215 cases of lung disease associated with vaping, and the U.S. Surgeon General recently declared e-cigarette use among youth a “public health epidemic.”

And on Wednesday, as Murman was preparing to float her proposal at the County Commission meeting, the governor of Michigan enacted the nation’s first state-wide ban on flavored e-cigarettes, citing a decision by the state’s health department to deem youth vaping a “health emergency.”

That prohibition covers all sweet, mint and menthol-flavored vaping products, and also bans “misleading” descriptions of vapor products as “clear,” “safe,” or “healthy.” It’s a temporary, six-month measure meant to regulate online and retail sales while the state’s health department works to develop rules for a permanent state-wide ban.

The only current restriction on e-cigarette use in Florida went into effect in July – an extension of the Florida Clean Air Act that loops e-cigarettes into the existing ban on smoking in indoor workplaces. Still, the new law, approved by nearly 70 percent of voters, allows for vaping inside private residences, retail tobacco stores, stand-alone bars and hotel rooms that allow smoking.

The new law stopped short of writing e-cigarettes into existing Florida laws, stipulating that only the state can regulate tobacco smoking. That leaves a narrow opportunity for local governments to impose their own restrictions and regulations, Murman said.

“We’ve got the door open,'' she said, "so let’s do something to help keep our children safe.”

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Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins and Sheriff Chad Chronister appear in a new public service announcement about the dangers of vaping that has aired on middle and high school classroom televisions since the start of the school year.

The video came in response to a sharp increase in the number of on-campus tobacco-related incidents reported by the county’s public schools. Last school year, the district received 390 reports of on-campus incidents involving tobacco – up from 178 during the previous school year.

Tobacco-free Florida’s “Youth Tobacco Survey” found that roughly 25 percent of the state’s high school students reported using electronic vaping devices — a 58 percent increase compared to 2017.

Using or possessing e-cigarettes, or tobacco products in any form, is prohibited on school campuses, Chronister says in the video. And the penalty for those caught with a vape in school goes beyond in-school suspension and a call to mom or dad. Students will also receive a civil citation on first offense, which requires court appearances and community service hours.

Chronister also warns that confiscated devices will be tested by his office. If they test positive for illegal substances like THC oil, a highly potent form of cannabis, students won’t get the leniency shown to those busted for smoking pot, Chronister said. Because the oil is so strong, the crime is instantly elevated to a felony charge.

“A felony has long-term effects on your future,” Chronister said. “Everything from getting a job to going to college will be impacted. Today we are pleading with students to please put down the pen.”