E-Cigarette Regulations Advance, but Not Menthol Ban

Senate President Steve Sweeney worries about potential loss of $230M in tax revenue from sale of menthol-flavored traditional cigarettes
Credit: tomkohhantsuk/Pixabay
It’s necessary to respond to “epidemic of nascent nicotine addiction” among young people, said Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr.

New Jersey lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday to ban flavored vaping products and further regulate sales of e-cigarettes, despite hours of passionate testimony from users and store owners who said it would force businesses to close and drive up cigarette use.

The Legislature held off on a vote to suspend the sales of traditional menthol cigarettes however. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Camden) said since the bill would impact tax revenue it made sense to postpone consideration of the issue until the budget discussions this spring. The ban could have cost the state some $230 million in taxes, according to a nonpartisan legislative analysis.

But appropriations committees in both the Senate and Assembly voted — with some opposition from Republicans — to pass amended versions of Democratic-led bills designed to reduce e-cigarette use among children, who have increasingly embraced these products. The issue took on new urgency last year, as federal officials identified thousands of cases of vaping-related lung illness, at least 50 of which were fatal. A New Jersey woman was among those who died.

One measure (A-3178/S-3265) would eliminate the sale of any flavored vape products and raise the fee for retailers who violate the law. Language that would have also removed menthol cigarettes from store shelves was struck from the bill.

Two other bills (A-5922/5923 and S-4223/4224) were merged to impose new barriers to under-age sales, cap the amount of nicotine in vape liquids at 2%, create a statewide tracking system for all e-cigarette products, boost the licensing fee for vape shops, and require retailers to install electronic systems to help verify that all customers  are 21 or older.

Backed by governor’s task force

The legislation — incorporating recommendations from Gov. Phil Murphy’s Electronic Smoking Device Task Force, released in October — now requires full votes in both houses before he could sign them into law. Both are expected to be considered Monday, one of the last two days in the current legislative sessions.

“My intention is to respond to the epidemic of nascent nicotine addiction that we are seeing” among young people, said Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., a physician who chairs the health committee and has led the fight to further regulate e-cigarettes.

“The question is how are we going to respond to that,” said the Burlington County Democrat who has sponsored several bills. “New Jersey residents must be kept safe when it comes to this growing public health concern.”

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), another sponsor, noted that studies show flavors like cotton candy and mango are particularly attractive to children. One in four high school students now vapes regularly, according to state data, and one in five middle schoolers.

“We know what needs to be done to help keep kids safe and that’s what we are doing with this legislation,” she said.

Business owners urge restraint

School officials and public health organizations pledged their support, but didn’t testify on behalf of the bill.

But e-cigarette retailers, vape users and other supporters spoke out in numbers about how the legislation would harm them. The New Jersey Vapor Rights Coalition, which said it represents the state’s 250 retailers, suggested most would be forced to close if the state tightened regulations and banned the popular flavors.

“This effectively does nothing but destroy our business in New Jersey,” said a tearful Cheryl Argo, who has run a vape business for five years and testified before both committees. “I beg you, please do not put me out of business at 50 years old,” she said.

Business owners said they already face strict federal and state regulations and work diligently to prevent under-age sales. They urged lawmakers to work with them to identify less onerous ways to improve the system, without imposing costs or restrictions they said are beyond the reach of small shops.

In addition, they argued that the changes would make it harder for adults who had quit smoking traditional cigarettes to access the vape products they depend on.

E-cigarettes — which heat a liquid infused with nicotine to create a vapor that is inhaled — do not contain the cancer-causing tar as traditional smokes, but can result in nicotine addiction and cause other lung damage. The devices can also be used to ingest THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

“You can protect children without killing their parents,” said shop owner Michael Romeo. “A ban today means a black market tomorrow,” he added, noting that adults — and children — will instead seek out illegal sources for these products, which could be more dangerous.

And Gregory Conley, president of the New Jersey-based American Vaping Association, urged lawmakers on both panels to hold off until later this year, after federal officials review the public health benefits of these devices. Conley, who said e-cigarettes allowed him to quit smoking, stressed that some scientists have determined that vaping products are “much less harmful” than traditional smokes.

“But less harmful is not harmless,” Assembly Conaway noted.

While youth smoking rates have declined for years, public health officials are concerned this could be reversed by the rise in e-cigarette use among kids. Nationwide, use of the products jumped nearly 80% among high school students in one year and 50% by those in middle school, federal data shows.

“That is both astronomical and unacceptable,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale Jr. (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bills in the Senate.

The Assembly appropriations panel also approved a bill that would ban the use of coupons, price rebates and other discounts for vape products. This measure had already passed Senate committees and is now pending before both full houses.