Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said it is time to enact new regulations on vaping, an issue among youth that she says is rising to “epidemic” proportions.
Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Rutledge noted that the relatively new products in the industry pose health risks and must stop targeting children.
“While I am generally not one to push for more regulations, we absolutely must wrap our hands around the vaping epidemic. It is a true epidemic in Arkansas and across the country. Every single superintendent and school official that I have spoken with has said we have a vaping problem at our schools,” said Rutledge.
“Young people as young as third grade have been caught vaping. A kindergartner brought a vape to school,” she added. “They call it their ‘Juul room’ instead of the bathroom. They have no idea what they’re putting into their bodies and into their systems, and each vape pod contains about as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. So imagine that 14, 15-year-old sitting down and smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.”
Rutledge believes that a special session could be called to enact new laws quickly versus waiting until the 2021 legislative session.
“I have spoken to the governor about this. I’ve talked to our legislators. We’ve also talked as attorneys general from across the country about looking at the responsibility of these companies who are promoting these products, how they’re selling them online. Young kids can get online now and purchase vape pods that taste like bubblegum or cotton candy. These are not your vapes that taste like Marlboro Reds or menthol Kools,” Rutledge said.
Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said he’s not heard of any talk of a special session and that regulating the industry will be a difficult challenge.
“As I found out last session, tackling vaping or anything associated with the tobacco industry is a heavy lift,” he said. Hendren introduced legislation in the regular session to further tax vaping and e-cigarette products, but the measure stalled in the House after a controversial Senate vote. It is in interim study for now.
“The ability to get legislative consensus on something that controversial in advance of a special session is pretty unlikely. I am planning on holding hearings in the upcoming months about vaping and healthcare costs associated with tobacco use in general,” Hendren added. “There are still many questions to be answered, particularly about vaping, and a lot of data that must be gathered if we are going to be successful.”
Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, also said a special session was unlikely on the issue and that he needed more information before staking a position.
“I’m not aware of any upcoming special sessions. As for vaping, it’s a serious issue, and I’d need to look further at specifics before commenting,” he told Talk Business & Politics.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, sided with Rutledge that it is time to take action, but she also agreed that a special session would be difficult.
“I have been following the illnesses that have occurred from it. Also, the science behind it – I don’t know honestly how anyone could think it’s safe given the biological structure of the lungs, an incredibly sensitive organ,” Irvin said.
She outlined several policy ideas, such as no vaping in classrooms or on high school campuses and further raising the age to use vaping products.
“Honestly, I have spoken to some of these companies and they are not opposed to that. And I would be open to other ideas on it, but the taxing issue really needs to be figured out. I think these companies will be willing to work because the lawsuits they will encounter could be devastating,” Irvin said.
“I’m afraid of other issues that might work their way into a special session, so I’m a bit hesitant to go down that road,” she cautioned. “If we see a dramatic rise of teens with lung diseases, then yes, I could see one [special session] next year, but with the other issues that are being discussed, I don’t think there is strong legislative support out there for those.”
RUTLEDGE ON ROBOCALLS, HER POLITICAL FUTURE
This past week, Rutledge was in Washington D.C. with other states’ attorneys general to announce a memorandum of understanding with major telecommunications firms to crack down on robocalls. The MOU pushes the phone companies to do more to trace and stop the calls from their origins, oftentimes outside of the U.S.
“It is the number one complaint that I hear, not just in the office, but across the state. People are sick and tired of these out-of-control robocalls,” Rutledge said. “In Arkansas during this past legislative session, we passed a strong law to move it from a misdemeanor to a felony conviction, but also required our phone companies to file with the Public Service Commission every year what they are doing to stop the calls.”
In 2022, Rutledge will be term-limited in the Attorney General’s office. She said it’s way too early to speculate what her political future may hold, although she’s been rumored to have interest in running for governor, Arkansas Supreme Court or even Congress.
“We’ll see. It’s over three years until we elect our next governor – that’s three football seasons,” Rutledge said. “A lot can happen in the next three years… we’re not going to rule anything out.”
Rutledge also discussed her legal efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act on its constitutionality and a recent investment she made to fund a free veterans’ legal clinic at the UALR Bowen School of Law. Watch her full interview below.