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Florida debates local vs state or federal control of e-cig sale to minors

E-cig ban activists oppose a proposed Florida bill banning sale to minors.

Their baffling stance is about local control. A sale-to-minors ban passed the Florida Senate earlier this year (SB 224), but when the House version (HB 169) appeared this week (co-sponsored by Miami Republican Frank Artiles), it contained a provision pre-empting tobacco regulation to the state.

The Florida chapter of the American Lung Association, and a student group at Florida State University, Students Working Against Tobacco, say that the pre-emptive amendment (reserving all tobacco regulation authority to the state, as opposed to localities) is a "gimmick" introduced at the behest of Big Tobacco lobbyists, in order to weaken local ordinances regulating standard tobacco products, very strict in some localities, in favor of state regulations which may be more lax.

Brenda Olson of the Lung Association argues that the Big Tobacco lobby is unusually strong in Florida state capital Tallahassee. The St. Augustine Record claims tobacco contributions to statehouse campaigns "in the current election cycle" totaled $467K, and that Altria (Phillip Morris) gave $50K to the state's Republican Party, and Miami's Dosal Tobacco gave $179K to Republicans and $37.5K to Democrats. The political monitoring website Ballotpedia reports that Dosal gave $1K to Artiles in his 2010 campaign for the District 119 seat (0.3% of his $316,285 total), but shows no major tobacco donations for his 2012 bid for the seat he now holds, District 118.

The opponents of the pre-emption clause claim that it would wipe out existing local regulations, while one of the bill's sponsors claims it would only bar future local ordinances, and not wipe out existing ones. Artiles said on Monday that the HB 169's sponsors would be willing to "grandfather" local ordinances into the bill. "This is nothing but a power struggle," he said, claiming that tobacco had no role in proposing the amendment.

Cindy Hartsell of "The Olde Smoke Shop" in Milton Florida, who sells 5 to 10 e-cigarettes a day, supports the sale-to-minors ban, but it would not affect her business, as she won't sell to minors anyway. "No one under 18. No. I would not sell it to them," she says. This is typical of vape shops everywhere. Most retail sale of e-cigs to minors occurs in convenience stores, which are now also beginning to discourage such sales, calling self-regulation in this matter a "best practice". Of course everyone is waiting for a nationwide ban on sale to under-18s, and expecting to hear about this soon from the President's Office of Management and Budget, which is reportedly considering FDA recommendations on the matter. Nonetheless, several state legislatures have been considering such bans at the state level, often with opposition from health advocacy groups making a variety of claims about Big Tobacco ploys.

A sale-to-minors ban passed the Rhode Island legislature last Summer, but was vetoed by the governor when lung and heart associations said it would "normalize" the product in the public eyes. A sale to minors ban was recently passed in Ohio despite objections by health groups that it was a Big Tobacco ploy to lay the groundwork for lower taxation on e-cigs in the future.

What are the interests of the vaping community in this matter?

All responsible voices in the industry and community favor a ban on sale to minors, not only because it will help keep nicotine away from teenagers, but also since it will reassure the public of good intentions. Harm reduction theorists of course want low taxes on e-cigs, since the price advantage is one of the ways the harmless product entices smokers away from deadly cigarettes. Most experienced vapers hope to minimize the influence of Big Tobacco on the vaping community, and hope to counteract the public presupposition that Big Tobacco somehow represents a voice for vapers. Hopefully the outcome of the Florida "tempest in a teapot" will serve all of these interests of the vaping community.

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