Flavored vape advocates push back on governor's ban

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Vaping advocates on Thursday questioned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s promised ban on flavored e-cigarettes, noting it would hurt individuals who turned to vaping to quit smoking cigarettes.

People packed into the House Oversight Committee meeting for the discussion on the yet-to-be finalized emergency rules that would ban flavored e-cigarettes in an effort to curb youth usage of vaping products. Three overflow rooms were made available for the hearing.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s promised ban on flavored e-cigarettes would hurt individuals who turned to vaping to quit smoking cigarettes, advocates say.

“These rules do not ban e-cigarettes,” Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said during the hearing. “They will still be available to adults who want them.”

“Without some of these flavors, it's not going to be something that adults will want to do,” said Rep. Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills. “It effectively seems like we’re outlawing it altogether.”

A day after President Donald Trump announced plans for a similar ban across the country, GOP Rep. Matt Hall of Marshall chaired the committee to discuss Michigan's proposed emergency rules.

A preliminary copy of the rules would ban the sale of flavored vaping products and presume a person in possession of four or more flavored vapor products has "the intent to sell."

The rules also ban "fraudulent or misleading" terms such as "clean," safe" or "harmless" to sell vaping products and prohibits advertisements for vaping products, where possible, from being within 25 feet of point of sale, candy, food or soft drinks. 

Violations of the rules would be treated as a misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail and/or a $200 fine.

"I think we can do better than this," Hall said. “We can have better rules than what I have seen.”

Webber and other Republican lawmakers argued the legislation they passed earlier this year banning youth purchases of e-cigarettes addressed the increase in youth usage, which Khaldun declared a public health crisis in late August.

“I voted for it knowing that it was progress but not progress enough,” said Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township. “I think that’s why we’re here today.”

GOP lawmakers noted the preliminary emergency rules would also ban flavored “alternative nicotine products” and questioned whether the governor also planned to ban flavored combustible cigarettes or flavored marijuana products.

Khaldun said it is “likely” flavored marijuana products were also targeted toward children, but said she could not speak to similar bans on those products “at this time.”

“I’m specifically here to talk about the public health emergency of youth vaping nicotine products,” Khaldun said.

While youth usage of vaping products is concerning, there is not clear proof those young users are eventually taking up cigarette smoking, said Guy Bentley, director of consumer freedom at the libertarian Reason Foundation.

While 15% of Michigan high schoolers said they vaped within the past 30 days in 2017, 24% said they used marijuana and nearly 30% said they used alcohol, Bentley said, citing survey data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A ban on flavored e-cigarettes would likely impact the “most popular tool to help Americans stop smoking” and recommended Michigan find an alternative solution to a “full-scale prohibition,” he said.

“Prohibition in its economic sense is simply containing supply without containing demand,” Bentley said.

Nicotine, regardless of source, is a gateway to lower economic standing, lower academic performance and poor health, said Shelley Schmidt, a Grand Rapids area pulmonologist who has been speaking at area schools about the dangers of nicotine use and addiction. 

“If nicotine is a gateway, the flavorings are the lock unlocking the gate and kicking it open,” Schmidt said. 

Marc Slis, the owner of 906 Vapor in Houghton, said e-cigarettes helped him to quit combustible cigarettes after 41 years of smoking, 30 of which he spent unsuccessfully trying to quit. He drove more than 500 miles for the hearing, he said. 

“You won’t just be banning flavors,” Slis said. “You’ll be banning a life-saving industry from this state.”

GOP Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain promised Slis that he would fight to stop the rules from going into effect, in spite of the Legislature’s inability to sidestep the emergency rule process Whitmer used to implement the six-month emergency ban.

“These rules are going to kill small business owners like you and it cannot get into effect for six minutes, let alone six months,” LaFave said.

The lawmaker later clarified he planned to introduce a bill that would prohibit the governor from declaring a public health crisis related to vaping. Should Whitmer veto the bill, LaFave said he would gather the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey did not directly weigh in on LaFave's plan but didn't dismiss the idea of reviewing the process that allowed for the ban.

The Clarklake Republican agreed youth vaping is a concern and that the governor and state health department have the authority to declare a health emergency and issue corresponding emergency rules, his spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

But he also "believes a hearing on the process is worthwhile to better understand if changes should be considered so that the Legislature and the public have an opportunity to weigh in on this type of emergency declaration," McCann said.