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As House Votes to Tackle Youth Vaping, Some Fear Unintended Consequences

By Evie Blad — February 28, 2020 4 min read
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The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, a bill that aims to tackle the youth vaping epidemic by putting new limits on the sale and marketing of a variety of tobacco products, including a ban on flavored e-cigarettes favored by teens.

The bill, which passed 213-195 Friday, is favored by organizations that represent teachers, principals, school boards, and school nurses. Those groups argue that dramatic federal action is necessary to halt the health concern that has created challenges for their schools. Their advocacy follows a pledge by President Donald Trump to remove flavored vaping products from the market, but they have complained his subsequent actions weren’t aggressive enough to stem the problem.

But the measure also faced some pushback from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who argued that it unfairly singles out black smokers by prohibiting the sale of menthol products. And some Republican representatives argued it would overly restrict products that can help adult users of traditional cigarettes kick the habit.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act?

The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., would impose a variety of new restrictions on tobacco products. Among its provisions:

  • A prohibition on online sales of tobacco and vaping products;
  • A ban on most flavored vaping products, menthol cigarettes, and flavored cigars;
  • A requirement that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration extend regulations that apply to the sale and marketing traditional tobacco products to e-cigarettes;
  • A new federal tax on nicotine used in vaping products;
  • Creation of a grant to develop strategies for smoking cessation;
  • A requirement for the Government Accountability Office to study e-cigarettes; and
  • A requirement for graphics on cigarette packages that the negative health consequences of smoking.

Why Do Education Groups Support the Anti-Vaping Bill?

Teachers and educational administrators say student vaping has grown rapidly in recent years, creating concerns for student health and school environments.

As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk and Denisa Superville reported recently, nearly 100 school districts around the country have even sued companies like JUUL and other e-cigarette manufacturers, citing expenses related to cessation programs, prevention efforts, increased work monitoring common areas and hallways, and equipment like special detectors meant to detect vaping in school restrooms.

Organizations that support the bill say the marketing and use of vaping products grew faster than the political will to regulate them, creating a crisis. They favor efforts to ban flavors, like mango and mint, that are appealing to young people, and they say the Trump administration left too many exemptions in its rule.

“The teen vaping epidemic is one of the largest public health crises facing schools,” National Association of Secondary School Principals Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti said in a statement after the House vote. “School leaders fight a daily uphill battle to prevent and intervene on student nicotine addiction. They are often forced to divert time and school funds from learning in order to preserve students’ health from a crisis that lines the pockets of a pernicious and politically active vaping industry. NASSP was proud to lead principals’ advocacy efforts to ban online sales of tobacco, restrict e-cigarette advertising, and address the inappropriate marketing of tobacco products to our nation’s youth. We commit to maintaining those efforts through the enactment of this bill and beyond.”

When Congress voted in December to raise the smoking and vaping age to 21, children’s health organizations called it a good first step but warned it wasn’t a replacement for more stringent sales and marketing regulations.

“Youth use of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products is a problem that will not resolve itself,” a coalition of health and education organizations wrote in a February letter to House members. “It will require action by Congress.”

Pushback to Anti-Vaping Bill

Among the concerns of those who voted against the bill: It bans menthol cigarettes, popular with black smokers, and imposes restrictions on hookah, popular with some Middle Eastern populations. At the same time, it leaves a loophole in the online sales ban, exempting unflavored cigars that are popular with more affluent white smokers, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus noted. Some said they feared the ban would create a black market for menthol products that might contribute to concerns about overly punitive policing of black Americans.

“A ban that targets menthol products but ignores other premium tobacco products unduly burdens the black community,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill. “This asymmetrical ban feels more like a targeted attack than a value-neutral health care policy decision. In effect, white adult smokers would see little difference in their lives after this ban while black smokers could face even more sweeping harassment from law enforcement if the hint of menthol smoke can justify a stop.”

Others, like Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., voted in favor of the bill, citing the detrimental effects of smoking in black communities.

Photo: Getty

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