Plan to ban e-cigarettes sales to minors reignites Michigan vaping debate

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
E-cigarette smoking among minors remains controversial.

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, the latest step in a years-long battle over state regulations for the increasingly popular vaping devices. 

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.

Michigan is now the only state without its own ban on e-cigarette sales to minors, according to lawmakers who have been unable to finalize consensus regulations in recent years.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has voiced early opposition to the latest effort because it would exclude alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, from the traditional definition of a tobacco product in Michigan law.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed similar legislation on the same grounds in 2015 amid a debate over applying tobacco taxes to e-cigarettes. Health advocacy organizations argue the latest proposal is again more about "protecting tobacco company profits" than it is about protecting kids. 

Sponsoring Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, said he is hoping Whitmer will sign the bill if it is also approved by the House and reaches her desk. After all, he said, as a state senator she voted for the legislation Snyder vetoed in 2014.

“There are certain groups that are just bound and determined to classify a utensil as a tobacco product,” said Outman, referencing e-cigarette devices that are traditionally loaded with liquid nicotine.

“I find that odd because … it may not contain any tobacco,” he said. “I don’t care if (minors) put marijuana in it, I don’t care if they put bubble gum in it. I don’t want them to have access to this device, and that’s what this legislation does.”

Whitmer’s health department objected to the proposal last month in the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee.

The administration “strongly supports legislative efforts to restrict all forms of tobacco or nicotine products” but opposes the new legislation because it would prohibit e-cigarettes “from being regulated as tobacco products under Michigan law,” state health consultant Farid Shamo told lawmakers in committee last month.

Passing a state law that is not consistent with FDA guidelines “will unnecessarily sow confusion and will send a mixed health message to the public that these products are less harmful or even safe,” Shamo said in written testimony.

Under the legislation, retailers caught selling e-cigarettes to minors would be subject to fines starting at $100 for a first offense and up to $2,500 for a third or subsequent offense. Retailers would also be required to post age restriction information near the point of sale.

Minors who attempt to purchase e-cigarettes could be fined up to $50 and forced to participate in a health program and complete community service.

A broad coalition of health advocacy organizations opposed the bills in committee, accusing the tobacco industry of pushing weak restrictions to avoid tougher regulations that have helped curb smoking use by teens.

“The rapid rise in the number of youths who use electronic smoking devices or e-cigarettes is a public health epidemic that threatens to erode decades of progress made in reducing tobacco use,” leaders from the American Cancer Society Action Network, American Heart Association, Michigan State Medical Society and other groups said in a letter to lawmakers.

Some school groups, including students from Pinckney High School, testified in support of the legislation amid concerns over increasing use by minors.

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.

“I have three high schoolers and the access in which they can get these devices was a concern for me,” said sponsoring Sen. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit. “I just want to make sure that it’s behind the counter and you’re over 18.”

While Michigan could consider a different approach in the future, the legislation would address the problem right now, Bullock added.

“We just want to get it out of the hands of the young people.”