By Leah O'Keefe
---- — It’s against the law for minors to buy and use tobacco products in Massachusetts, and if new legislation is passed, electronic cigarettes will be snuffed out for them, too.
Battery operated electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, consist of a cartridge that contains liquid, which is then vaporized and inhaled by the user. In most Massachusetts cities and towns, it’s legal for anyone to purchase these smoke-free products as an alternative to paper cigarettes.
But, State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Boston, thinks that’s a bad idea, and last month filed a bill to make e-cigarettes inaccessible to minors. In addition, the legislation would ban the use of e-cigarettes in all locations where smoking is prohibited, including workplaces and public school grounds.
“Most people assume that our laws cover that issue,” Sanchez, of Jamaica Plain, said in regards to sales to minors. “That is why we are trying to get at it. How do we make sure we keep nicotine, in any forms, and nicotine delivery, out of the hands of minors?”
Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methen, supports the proposal, calling it “common sense legislation.”
“Just like regular cigarettes, electronic cigarettes contain nicotine,” she said. “Therefore, there should be guidelines in place to make sure that we are not allowing sales to minors.”
The health effects of using e-cigarettes remains unclear. Further testing is needed to identify the levels of nicotine each brand of electronic cigarette contains, according to Tami Gouveia, executive director of Tobacco Free Massachusetts, as well as to determine the potential health risks.
“We don’t know what the public health impacts are,” Gouveia said, adding there are also no consumer protections.
“The medical community seems to agree that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine and other carcinogens and the FDA has issued warnings about the health hazards associated with e-cigarettes,” said Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen.
Until further research is conducted, Campbell said, they should be subject to the same restrictions as traditional tobacco products as it applies to the sale to minors.
Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, co-sponsor of the legislation, said he’s motivated to change state law to prevent young people from buying e-cigarettes because he has seen marketing ramped up recently.
“To the extent these things become established as a safe and effective aid in helping people quit smoking, that is fabulous,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that at all.”
However, he said, “When they are marketed by people like Jenny McCarthy ... and have names like Orange Crush and Ghetto Grape, I think it is a little disingenuous to claim there is no effort to target these products to kids.”
The FDA blocked importation of e-cigarettes from 2008 to 2010 by ruling they were “unapproved drug/device combination products” under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. However, that decision was overturned by a federal judge, on the basis that e-cigarettes could be regulated as tobacco products, unless advertised for a therapeutic purpose.
Since their emergence in the US market, awareness and use has continually increased, with 1 in 5 current smokers using e-cigarettes, according to the Committee on Public Health. Some people make the switch from cigarettes to the electronic version in an attempt to quit smoking.
Prices range from around $10 for a typical electronic cigarette that requires replacement liquid cartridges to as much as $70 for a polished wooden model that can be refilled. The products were first developed in China by small manufacturers who were quickly acquired by the tobacco giants.
All three major tobacco companies plan to market their own version of e-cigarettes by the end of the year. R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. launched its Vuse electronic cigarette this summer in Colorado. Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, will soon debut its product, MarkTen, in Indiana.
The industry has indicated it is not opposed to prohibiting sales to minors, according to Gouveia, from Tobacco Free Massachusetts. A spokesman for R.J. Reynolds could not be reached for comment.
The bill does not address taxes on the products. E-cigarettes and nicotine delivery products are currently not subject to state tobacco taxes. Sanchez said the tax debate on e-cigarettes could take place later. The focus of his bill is on making sure “it is impossible for kids to get these products in their hands.” Lawmakers last month tacked another $1 on to the tobacco tax, bringing it up from $2.51 to $3.51 per pack.
Material from the State House News Service is included in this report.