Tougher tobacco, vaping laws get support in Florida Senate

( Photo by Ruslan Alekso/Pexels )

Florida would tighten tobacco and vaping regulations as smoking, chewing tobacco and using electronic cigarettes would be off limits for anyone under age 21, under a bill that started moving forward Tuesday in the Senate.

Members of the Senate Health Policy Committee unanimously approved a measure (SB 810) that would make it illegal for people under 21 to use tobacco products no matter the delivery system, consistent with a new federal law.

“We have a crisis in the sense that the anecdotal evidence is supported by the empirical evidence,” said bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “We know that what will happen is that if we don’t solve this problem, we are going to be in a health crisis and a financial crisis in the future.”

Simmons’ bill would have to clear two more Senate committees before it could be considered by the full Senate. A House version (HB 151) has been filed but has not been heard.

Congress last year passed legislation setting 21 as the national age limit for tobacco products. President Trump signed the change --- included in a federal spending plan --- in December. The age change takes effect in the summer.

Simmons’ bill, which would bring Florida law in line with federal law, would take effect Oct. 1.

Simmons’ proposal also would make other changes beyond increasing the tobacco age. For instance, it would change a ban on smoking within 1,000 feet of school property, eliminating an exemption that has allowed people to smoke after midnight and before 6 a.m.

The bill would change how the state regulates the sale and delivery of vaping and e-cigarette products. Simmons bill also would ban cigarette vending machines from being located anywhere that people under the age of 21 could enter.

Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, expressed concern about part of Simmons’ bill that would require verification of age for the delivery of vaping or tobacco products, something he said could drive up costs of delivery between $6 and $18 per package.

He also said Florida retailers will abide by the state law but that out-of-state retailers won’t. That, he said, would adversely impact Florida businesses.

“If you pass this bill as written, what you’re going to have is that Florida small businesses that sell online, they will comply because they have to. But when you have a customer in the state of Florida and they see all of a sudden what used to be a $12 order shoots up to $18 or $30, they are going to go to an out-of- state retailer,” Conley said. “And while it would be nice to think that, ‘Yes, we have this law everyone is going to follow it, including those in Wisconsin, Washington and California,’ that’s not actually how it works in reality.”

Conley said South Carolina considered similar requirements last year. But after working with vendors, it allowed customers to establish online profiles where customers must upload pictures of their legal identification. The profile must be verified before packages can be delivered, he said.

But Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, dismissed the additional charges that Conley said were troublesome, noting that she often has to sign for packages.

“I sign for shoes when I order them and they are a certain cost,” Book said. “And I think when it comes to protecting our youth and our citizens, it’s of the utmost importance.”

Congress changed the federal age law from 18 to 21 on the heels of a national outbreak of vaping related illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there had been 2,668 reported patients with lung injuries stemming from e-cigarettes or vaping as of Jan. 14. Sixty people in 27 states had died, including two people in Florida.

Simmons’ bill is supported by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network as well as the American Heart Association and other public health groups.

Jonathon Risteen, owner of Gentleman’s Draw in Edgewater, told members of the Senate panel the bill punishes small business owners and lets underage smokers off the hook. He said the state should consider beefing up enforcement of the law.

“One thing this bill does not address is penalizing the youth for breaking the law,” Risteen said.

The bill would maintain a current law that requires first-time offenders to either provide 16 hours of community service or pay a $25 fine and attend a school-approved anti-tobacco program, if available. Subsequent violations are financial only.

“You get more of a fine if you speed,” Risteen said.

But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the Legislature has to react because “we’ve introduced something in our culture that is deadly.”

“I'm certainly a free-enterprise, freedom-loving guy. But folks, we’ve cut loose a monster here,” Baxley said. “And I'm in the funeral business. And when you have young people, high-school age, dropping dead, I mean, you’ve got a serious situation.”