TAMPA — Electronic cigarettes or sleek, rechargeable vapes. Fruity, minty or flavorless. If you’re a teen in Hillsborough County, vaping in all its forms is now against the law.
County commissioners unanimously approved a sweeping new ordinance Wednesday that raises the legal vaping age from 18 to 21 years old. The change makes it illegal for stores to sell products to under-age customers and prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from even possessing a vaping device or other paraphernalia.
The change comes at a time when the rising number of lung illnesses and deaths linked to vaping has sparked similar discussions across the country. An Oct. 15 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified more than 1,400 cases of lung disease nationwide, 7 cases of lung injuries and 33 deaths linked to vaping or e-cigarette use.
In Florida, Attorney General Ashley Moody has launched an investigation into nearly two dozen vaping companies that do business in the state. Her office is scrutinizing tactics used to market the products to teens, such as flavoring the nicotine-laced liquid smoked in the devices with sweet, kid-friendly flavors such as bubble gum, fruit loops and cotton candy.
Wednesday’s vote made Hillsborough County the first local government in the state to enact age-based restrictions on the sale and possession of vaping paraphernalia. The changes will go into effect as soon as necessary paperwork is filed, a process that county staff said usually takes about two weeks.
The new law will require county retailers selling vape products to post conspicuous signs stating it’s illegal to sell vapor-generating electronic devices or vaping products to anyone under the age of 21. Failure to do so will be a second-degree felony.
The law also expands on recent legislative changes to the Florida Clean Air Act that looped e-cigarette use into the existing ban on smoking in indoor workplaces or anywhere else where smoking is not allowed. In Hillsborough County, vaping will also be prohibited in any public places frequented by children, including outdoor locations like playgrounds and school yards.
After months of research and hours of public discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, county staff took back an initial draft that would have slapped minors in possession of a vaping device with criminal charges and even jail time.
The approved ordinance sets a fee schedule that requires offenders to either pay a fine ranging from $25 to $200 or, in some minor-in-possession cases, agree to complete a school-approved anti-tobacco or anti-vaping “alternative to suspension” program within 20 days.
It’s important for teens to remember, Commissioner Kimberly Overman said Wednesday, that all devices confiscated by law enforcement also will be tested for substances like THC oil, a highly-potent form of cannabis that, because of its strong concentration, instantly elevates the charge to a felony.
“That is not a civil citation,” Overman said. “A majority of the children that have access to those products may not realize they are actually changing the trajectory of their life with a felony."
After the board’s vote, commissioners also supported Chairman Les Miller’s request for county attorneys and staff to work with the Sheriff’s office to create a “non-criminal civil citation program” for possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana — up to 20 grams, or about three-quarters of an ounce.
The City of Tampa took that step in 2016, essentially decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot within city limits. Instead of making an arrest, police officers have the discretion to issue citations, with fines ranging from $75 to $450, depending on the offense.
The Sheriff’s office, the City of Tampa, and other stakeholders within the county signed off on the new ordinance ahead of the commission’s meeting.