TAMPA — Three years ago, Hillsborough County banned the sale of vape products to people younger than 21. The state followed suit in 2021 and Florida law also prohibits the use of electronic cigarettes or other nicotine products within 1,000 feet of a school.
The aim is to discourage teenagers and preteens from using tobacco to avoid the health risks of nicotine addiction.
But Hillsborough Commissioner Michael Owen wondered if the county’s 2019 ordinance goes far enough. He wanted county staff to research whether the commission should consider another ordinance — banning sale of electronic cigarettes within 500 feet of schools.
Commissioners agreed by a unanimous vote to ask staff to research options.
“People in my district are in an uproar seeing these vaping shops pop up right in front of a high school. It’s really become an epidemic,” said Owen, whose district includes eastern and southern Hillsborough. “I’m not one to restrict business at all … but when it comes to health and safety, especially for our young folks, I’m going to go to bat for them.”
The call for action came from constituents, he said, including former Hillsborough School Board member Melissa Snively.
“I think if it were not so in your face there might be less students tempted to do it,” Snively told the Tampa Bay Times.
She pointed to several vape shops in close proximity to Newsome High School in Lithia, including one within walking distance.
A March 2021 principal’s newsletter to parents at Burnett Middle School in Seffner also warned that students were able to purchase vape pens at the convenience store across the street from the school.
Hillsborough School Board member Patricia Rendon, Ellen Snelling of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance and Terry Kemble of the nonprofit Protect Our Children all favored Owen’s push.
“Youth vaping is epidemic in Hillsborough County,” Snelling told commissioners.
The Florida Department of Children and Family Services annual survey of youth substance abuse showed the percentage of Hillsborough middle and high school students who had vaped nicotine in the prior 30 days to be above the statewide average.
In total, nearly 19 percent of Hillsborough students responding to the survey said they vaped nicotine. The county has more than 45,000 students in middle and high school.
Owen wanted the staff to count the number of vape stores in the county and to research what other local governments have done to regulate their locations. He cited a Miami Beach ordinance that prohibits vape sales within 500 feet of a school. On Wednesday, the rest of the commission agreed with him.
“I’m very stunned this isn’t already state law,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp.
“Having a 16-year-old daughter, I wholeheartedly support this. The thought of vaping just scares the hell out of me,” said Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan.