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Vaping bill passes committee, Senators say more work needed

A bill proponents say would target the availability of vaping products to children and teens passed a Senate committee on Wednesday, but Senators said several details, including its impact on small retailers and the concerns of several health organizations, could keep it from getting a final vote in the remaining days of this legislative session.

“What this bill simply does, it makes it illegal for retailers to sell all vape products to anyone under 21,” sponsor Rep. Barbara Drummond, R-Mobile, said in the committee meeting. “It’s not about tobacco, it’s a vape bill.” 

But opponents say it’s very much about tobacco.  About two dozen health and children’s advocacy groups signed a letter asking lawmakers not to pass the legislation.

“Our organizations urge you to oppose House Bill 319 and Senate Bill 271 and instead focus on proven tobacco control policies, such as comprehensive tobacco retail licensure, adequate funding for the tobacco prevention and control program, 100% smoke free laws and increasing the price of tobacco products to make them unaffordable to youth,” the letter said. It was signed by the American Cancer Society, the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Alabama, Voices for Alabama’s Children and the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, among many others, and seemed to give several Senators pause Wednesday.

“There are some problems that are going to have to be resolved going forward,” Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, told Drummond.

Several owners and representatives of vape stores spoke against the bill. Joe Ferrell, representing vape retailers, said the establishments are already only open to those 21 and up. The bill puts unneeded restrictions on the stores and their products and would put 1,800 vape shops out of business, he said.

“(Under this bill), you will see big tobacco have a monopoly,” Ferrell said. 

At the same meeting, educators begged lawmakers to pass the bill in an effort to stop children’s access to vaping products. Andrew Howard, representing Mobile County Schools, said the system had 1,200 documented instances of students with vaping products this school year.

Blount County Schools Superintendent Rodney Green said he’s seen fourth graders with vape products.

“We welcome any legislation, any restrictions, any penalties … to keep vapes away from kids,” Green said. 

The bill allows for those under 21 caught with vape products to receive fines starting at $50 for first offenses up to $200. Community service hours are also an option.

“Big tobacco targeted kids with fruity flavors and successfully addicted a whole new generation of kids to nicotine,” Jada Shaffer, senior regional lead of government affairs for the American Heart Association, said in a written statement on Tuesday. “And now they are shifting the blame to kids and penalizing them. HB319/SB271 further victimizes Alabama’s children all over again.”

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