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Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday signed bipartisan legislation to prohibit e-cigarette sales to minors despite criticism from health officials who wanted a ban that expanded existing regulations on tobacco products.

The law will prohibit retailers from selling a “vapor product” or “alternative nicotine product” to anyone under the age of 18 years old and creates penalties for doing so.

Whitmer’s own Department of Health and Human Services had testified against the proposal in committee because it would treat e-cigarettes differently than tobacco. State and national health groups had urged her to veto the measure.

But Whitmer signed the law to address what she called a “public health crisis,” pointing to statistics showing e-cigarette use by middle and high school students is "climbing fast" and "fueled by the availability of flavors akin to Froot Loops, Fanta and Nilla wafers (to name just a few)."

In a signing statement sent to the Senate, Whitmer told lawmakers she has “significant reservations” about separating e-cigarettes from the definition of tobacco products in a way that “could be used to exempt these products from evidence-based tobacco control.”

The federal Food and Drug Administration began treating e-cigarettes like tobacco in 2016, prohibiting sales to anyone under the age of 18. But experts say the lack of state penalties has limited enforcement and contributed to growing use by minors here.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed similar legislation in 2015 amid a fight over expanding tobacco regulations and taxes. Michigan subsequently became one of the only states in the country without its own ban on e-cigarette sales to minors, according to legislators who sponsored the new law.

Along with signing the two-bill package into law, Whitmer said she is asking the state health department to “marshal the science” behind the FDA’s 2016 decision to treat e-cigarettes like tobacco and prepare recommendations for future state regulations.

The governor is also asking the Michigan Treasury Department to consider whether the FDA reasoning should also apply to Michigan laws governing the licensing and taxation of tobacco products.

The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and other health groups said they were “disappointed” by Whitmer’s decision to sign the law but expressed interest in working with her to strengthen regulations in the future.

Defining e-cigarettes as tobacco would “protect Michigan’s youth from the predatory practices Big Tobacco utilizes to addict kids to e-cigarettes” and “ensure all Michiganders continue to breathe clean air by including these products in our state’s Smoke-free air law,” the American Heart Association said in a statement.

In 2017, roughly 15% of Michigan high school students used electronic cigarettes, and nearly 23% used some form of tobacco that year, according the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Whitmer cited national statistics suggesting 21% of high school students and 5% of middle school students reported using e-cigarettes or other vape products within the previous 30 days.

“Behind the candy taste, however, is a product that hooks kids and adults alike: E-cigarettes can deliver nicotine more than twice as quickly as tobacco cigarettes,” Whitmer said.

The law will create new fines for selling e-cigarettes to minors, up to $100 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and $2,500 for a third or subsequent offence.

Penalties for traditional tobacco sales to minors would be raised to match those fines, and retailers would also be required to post signs explaining the illegality of selling tobacco products to minors.

Retailers would also be required to check identification for e-cigarette sales and would require child-resistant packaging for liquid nicotine.

The new law will “move Michigan one step in the right direction by expressly banning sales of these products to minors,” Whitmer said, “and one step in the wrong direction by creating special new categories” for e-cigarettes.

But that “mistake” is confined to the Youth Tobacco Act, and does not extend to the rest of Michigan’s tobacco control laws,” she told lawmakers.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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