In a sparsely attended meeting, the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees voted Wednesday (Sept. 18) to adopt an interim study proposal to determine strategies to combat the growing vaping epidemic among young Arkansans.
The proposal was submitted by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. Irvin chairs the Senate committee.
While the motion to adopt the study did pass, many of the legislators’ seats were empty, prompting Irvin to remark of vaping interests, “They have a very strong lobbying group that’s on the ground right now, which may be why people aren’t here.”
The meeting came on the same day that the National Institutes of Health announced that teen use of vaping products has doubled in the past two years, according to a survey of eighth, 10th and 12th graders. One in four high school seniors has used a vaping product in the last month, according to the survey.
Hendren on Monday released his proposed School Safety Act, which would levy a 67% privilege tax on e-cigarettes like the one levied on many other tobacco products. Cigarettes in Arkansas are taxed at a rate of $1.15 per pack. The bill would add e-cigarettes to the Arkansas Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006, which prohibits smoking indoors in public places. It also would ban e-cigarette advertising on outdoor billboards located within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or playground, and make other restrictions.
Hendren wants the Legislature to address the issue soon in a special session. Earlier this year, his Senate Bill 571 to raise taxes on e-cigarettes and cigarettes passed the Senate but died in the House. Hendren said legislators should act now to address the growing epidemic. Increasing taxes would discourage young people from trying vaping products like those produced by industry leader Juul.
He said the bill is a starting point for discussion, and many legislators have contacted him about changes they would like to make. But he said if legislators don’t work together to find a solution, “We’ll talk about this for a year and a half, and thousands and thousands of kids will become addicted to this product.”
The committees heard from several witnesses who attested to the dangers of vaping products. Nine Arkansans may have been stricken by a vaping-associated pulmonary illness that is appearing in 36 states, said Dr. Nate Smith, Department of Health director.
Of those, three are confirmed, three are probable and three are being investigated. Of the six that have been interviewed, two involved inhaling only nicotine, two involved inhaling only THC, the compound contained in marijuana, and two contained both products. Eight of the nine patients have been hospitalized.
Vaping advocates say the products can be used as a smoking cessation tool. Smith said there is some evidence that some people will move from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, but the products do not effectively help people move away from nicotine entirely. E-cigarettes offer a jolt of nicotine that can actually increase a person’s addiction to the substance.
Dr. Pebbles Fagan, director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, said adult use of vapor products hasn’t changed much. In Arkansas, less than 6% of adults use the products while less than 4% of adults nationally are doing so. That means growth has not occurred despite advertising supposedly targeting adults. Instead, the growth is occurring among young people.
Fagan presented several potential policy changes in addition to Hendren’s proposals, including zoning rules that prohibit sales within 1,000 feet of schools and also near other public and private areas that serve young people. The number of vape shop licenses could be capped, and the cost of licensing could be increased, she said.
Matt Sutton, a school-based mental health coordinator with Mountain Home Public Schools, and Mountain Home Junior High School Principal Kyle McCarn said the number of students using the products has increased. They said the products are easily concealed and that students are selling pods to each other. McCarn brought a bag full of vaping products confiscated from the eighth and ninth graders at his school. One was “Skittles” flavored.
Meanwhile, five high school students in the last two weeks have had a health situation that may have been related to vaping, though the school can’t prove it. Sutton said he believed three of them required emergency transport to the hospital.
Sutton said the lack of staff availability has made it hard to be proactive in solving the problem. Anyone caught with a vaping product spends five counseling sessions with him. Students also must spend three hours on a Saturday morning in a tobacco education program. They said the product is being used by young people from all kinds of families from a range of socioeconomic situations.