Legislation targets student use of e-cigarettes

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro held a press conference at Jonathan Law High School Tuesday to talk about legislation she re-introduced in the hopes of keeping electronic cigarettes out of the hands of people under age 18.

DeLauro and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty first introduced the Stop Tobacco Sales to Youth Act in 2015. The legislation would ensure that Internet and mail order sales of e-cigarettes are treated the same way as traditional tobacco products.

Jonathan Law is one of many schools across the country that has had to deal with an increase in students using tobacco via electronic smoking devices that are easy to conceal and that offer flavors enticing to the younger generation.

In January, Jonathan Law limited bathroom access because students were vaping — smoking electronic cigarettes —  in the bathrooms.

Principal Fran Thompson said those restrictions have since eased up, but staff is still monitoring places where students might gather to vape.

DeLauro said companies that manufacture electronic cigarettes are marketing their products to youth, and that’s one of the reasons she has reintroduced legislation that would put the same restrictions on the sale and delivery of e-cigarette products that exist for other tobacco products.

“Our community has made a choice,” DeLauro said. “We do not want our kids buying tobacco products.”

She said that while the health risks of vaping are not fully known, the devices can contain large amounts of nicotine. A University of Connecticut study said smoking e-cigarettes can be just as harmful as smoking regular cigarettes, DeLauro said.

Under federal law, buyers of tobacco products are required to verify their age upon ordering and receiving the products.

“However our children are sometimes able to buy these [electronic] cigarettes as well as cigars and hookah without facing any age verification requirement,” DeLauro said. “Online, phone and mail orders can be placed from anywhere in the United States with little accountability at checkout or delivery.”

She said additional safeguards are needed at the federal level, and that is why she has re-introduced the Stop Tobacco Sales to Youth Act, which amends existing law, adding e-cigarettes to the statute. The law would require online age verification for purchase and delivery of e-cigarettes, hookah or related products, age verification at delivery, and prohibit shipping through the United States Postal Service.

“Those caught selling e-cigarettes to minors will be subject to the same criminal and civil penalties as those who violate the law for regular tobacco products,” DeLauro said, adding that penalties could include fines and jail time, depending on the severity of the violation.

She added that the proposal updates existing law and does not create new law.

Carol Meredith, director of prevention and health promotion at the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, also spoke at the Tuesday press conference, saying that e-cigarettes and vaping have turned the tide on progress made in limiting the use of tobacco.

“In 1997 we had enormous strides in tobacco prevention in Connecticut,” she said, stating that there were huge drops in the smoking rate among youths and adults.

“We changed the tobacco culture and took steps toward a more healthy Connecticut,” Meredith said.

But recently there has been a substantial increase in the use of electronic smoking devices.

“Electronic cigarettes may set back the tremendous strides that we made by creating a whole new way to become addicted to nicotine,” she said.

Jonathan Law students Oreoluwatomiwa Opayemi, Bella Carroll, Emma Hudd, Mike McCarvill and Cameron Asmussen shared their observations at the press conference. They said that while they grew up knowing that cigarettes were bad for them, electronic cigarettes came along and created a whole new ball game. Some youth think they are “cool,” and some didn’t realize they could be just as bad for them as regular cigarettes. Also, students who are already 18 sometimes buy them for students who are underage.

“As a high schooler, I think the main issue is that it has become the norm for the students who go here,” said Bella. “We grew up knowing that cigarettes are so bad, and continuously being told the effect of them, but because e-cigarettes are so brand new to us, no one knew they were just as bad as everything else.”

In January, after Jonathan Law limited bathroom access, Juul, a brand of e-cigarette popular with students, said the company hopes to help in the effort to reduce the number of minors who use tobacco products.

“Juul Labs’ mission is to eliminate cigarette smoking by offering existing adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes,” said a company spokesman. “Juul is not intended for anyone else. We strongly condemn the use of our product by minors, and it is in fact illegal to sell our product to minors. No minor should be in possession of a Juul product.”