Sometimes technology outpaces the government’s ability to regulate it. That’s what’s happening with electronic cigarettes.
Oregon lawmakers will consider a measure in February to restrict minors from buying e-cigarettes. The idea has broad, bipartisan support.
The controversy is not about whether it’s a good idea to sell e-cigarettes to teens. Instead, the dispute is over what exactly an e-cigarette is in the first place.
“I would have been extremely happy having this in the beginning years of my marriage,” says Justin Newman.
Newman is the co-founder of Emerald Vapors, a Eugene, Oregon company that makes e-liquid. That’s the juice that gives e-cigarettes their flavor.
When an e-cigarette user exhales, it looks like second-hand smoke. But the first clue that it’s not smoke? The odor. Newman’s variety smells vaguely like incense.
The second clue: unlike a traditional cigarette, e-cigarettes have no flame. The batteries heat up a coil which vaporizes the liquid.
Newman says some, but not all of his products contain nicotine. But he doesn’t think any of it should be used by kids.
“We believe that adults need to make that decision,” he says. “And we would like to keep the product out of the hands of minors.”
Emerald Vapors operates three retail locations and Newman says they don’t sell to teens. He’s backing legislation in Salem that would make that the law for every dealer. Idaho and Washington already ban e-cigarette sales to youth.
But the idea is running into some opposition from some groups you might not expect: The American Lung Association. They certainly support a ban on selling e-cigarettes to kids. So why the hesitation?
“I just think until we know more about what it does to lung health and what it does to public health, I think we just need to be very, very careful about any legislation that we pass around e-cigarettes,” says Carrie Nyssen, regional director of advocacy for the American Lung Association.
Unlike tobacco products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate e-cigarettes. The agency is studying the issue but for now says the risk of using them is unknown.
But that uncertainty isn’t why the Lung Association and other public health groups including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are balking at e-cigarette legislation in Oregon and other states. Instead, they’re concerned that the bills define the products as something entirely separate from regular cigarettes.
That means they won’t automatically be taxed and won’t fall under most smoking bans. There is a proposal in Salem to restrict indoor use of e-cigarettes.
But Republican Representative Andy Olson says he doesn’t think lawmakers will go that far this year.
“I think because of the short session, I think the best thing we want to do is kind of get a foot in the door right now and at least prohibit minors from being able to purchase e-cigarettes,” he says.