Ga. House health chair predicts e-cigarette restrictions ahead

With teen vaping on the rise, will state lawmakers ban the popular sweet flavors? Earlier this month, Columbus e-cigarette store owner Keith Gossett demonstrates his wares at a Georgia House Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

An influential state lawmaker and gatekeeper for health-related bills is calling for Georgia to ban flavors in e-cigarettes and to raise the purchase age to 21 to keep the popular products away from children.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, the Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said she expects lawmakers to propose vaping regulations in the 2020 legislative session. When they do, Cooper wants a statewide ban on the thousands of flavors used in vape pens and pods, which include some labeled gum drop and cotton candy.

“I’d like to see (a ban) across the board,” Cooper said Wednesday after a hearing on vaping at the Capitol. “But if we had to live with menthol to make it exactly like cigarettes, then I could live with that.”

Cooper also said she’d support legislation raising the legal age limit to buy tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 years old. No bills related to vaping are filed yet ahead of the 2020 legislative session that starts next month.

More than 3.6 million middle and high school students used vaping products in 2018, marking a large increase from the year prior, according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration study. The spike in young users worries Cooper and others that vaping flavors may mask the dangers of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarette tobacco.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people are more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future if they started vaping as children. Outlawing flavors could lower the chances for that happening, said Dr. Tracey Henry, Grady Memorial Hospital’s assistant health director.

“Unfortunately, many young people may think that vaping does no harm,” Henry told committee lawmakers at a hearing last month. “That is a problem.”

Some local physicians like Dr. Justine Henao of Northside Hospital Forsyth favor turning e-cigarettes into controlled, prescription-based products for addiction treatment. Tobacco-cessation advocates like the nonprofit American Lung Association also want a flavor ban.

“Clearing the market of all flavored tobacco products is a step that is needed to address the youth vaping epidemic,” the association’s senior advocacy director, June Deen, said in a statement.

Some major cities like New York City and San Francisco recently imposed bans on flavored vaping liquids. A flavor ban in Massachusetts took effect late last month, while a federal court blocked a ban Michigan’s governor ordered in September. Federal regulators nearly ordered a nationwide flavor ban last month until President Donald Trump shelved the idea, expressing concerns about creating a black market.

Supporters of e-cigarette products at Wednesday’s hearing argued tobacco-free vaping is an effective way to wean adult cigarette smokers off tobacco products, which kill nearly 500,000 people a year. Flavors can help smokers switch from cigarettes to vaping and can be sold in containers that do not contain large amounts of nicotine, said Keith Gossett, a 45-year reformed smoker who owns Bucky’s Vape Shop in Columbus.

“We don’t want your children,” Gossett said. “I’m there to help smokers.”

Banning flavors from their local vape stores would take away 90% or more in sales from an industry that generates more than $98 million in annual tax revenue nationally, said David Higginbotham, a Lilburn vaping liquid manufacturer and president of the nonprofit advocacy group Georgia Smoke Free Association. He warned a flavor ban could wipe out local vaping businesses.

“It is the core product,” Higginbotham said Wednesday. “The liquid is the product that keeps us off the cigarettes.”

The looming legislative debate over flavored vaping comes in the wake of 48 deaths and nearly 2,300 lung injury cases traced to vaping in the United States this year. That includes four deaths and 36 illness cases in Georgia, according to the state Department of Public Health.

State and federal health officials have urged people to cut out e-cigarettes entirely until they can determine what specific aspects of vaping contributed to the recent illnesses.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.