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An anti-vaping bill passed the Senate Tuesday but without an amendment to raise the legal age to purchase electronic cigarettes to 21.

Senate Bill 218, which would establish a hotline or other mechanism for students to anonymously report concerns about vaping, was approved 33-3 and now moves to the House.

An amendment to increase the e-cigarette purchasing age from 18 to 21 was withdrawn before voting, but multiple senators spoke passionately about the need to protect children and, perhaps, take broader steps to crack down on youth vaping.

“We’ve got to address this issue because it’s becoming too big and too challenging for our children,” said Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield.

Senate Bill 218 is “one good step,” he said, “but it’s not going to fix it, not by any means.”

The bill — introduced by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard — calls for the Department of Education to create a system for reporting concerns about “the use, distribution, or possession of any alternative nicotine product, tobacco product, or vapor product on school property or during school-sponsored events.”

It’s among various attempts that have been made this session to address youth vaping, which the U.S. Surgeon General says has reached epidemic levels.

Last month, Meredith attempted to get a bill passed through the Agriculture Committee that would have increased the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. But that failed, so he proposed the narrower restriction — focusing on e-cigarettes and alternative nicotine products — as an amendment to 218.

Meredith testified Tuesday that he encountered pushback, however, in the form of emails from critics, saying he was jeopardizing the livelihood of thousands of employees at vapor businesses and should consider that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes.

“This is not good for our children,” he said of e-cigarettes. “This causes an addiction to nicotine. It’s not a harmless product. Is it better than smoking? Most certainly, but it’s not harmless by any means.”

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Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said legislators need to consider whether they’re doing everything they can to prevent Kentuckians from losing their parents too early in life as a result of tobacco-related illnesses like the stomach cancer that killed his father. Thayer recounted how his dad had started smoking at the age of 12 and stubbornly continued smoking, even on the day of his death.

Thayer urged youths not to dabble with cigarettes or vaping products since there could be potentially deadly consequences.

“Vaping products are supposed to help adults ween themselves off of cigarettes, but it’s having the complete exact opposite effect for our teens,” Sen. Thayer said. “It’s a gateway for them to go from vaping to cigarettes.”

Along with creating an anonymous reporting tool, Senate Bill 218 would require the Department of Education to establish policies for the prompt investigation of reports to the hotline and for the accused youth’s parent or guardian to be notified about substantiated findings.

Sen. Robin Wells, D-Grayson, said it’s important to continue to watch how the bill is enforced and to make sure students have due process. But she ultimately voted for the bill out of concern that some people are using e-cigarettes with THC, a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Smith worked with a group of youths from Johnson County Middle School earlier in the session to champion the bill and persuade legislators. The students expressed concern about the dangers of youth vaping and how common the practice is.

“The kids who came in and gave this presentation from Johnson County did a tremendous job,” said Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, but more action is needed to keep e-cigarettes out of youths’ hands.

Noting that 18-year-olds are going out to buy e-cigarettes and selling them to younger kids at school, Alvarado said, “I think there’s an opportunity for us to make a huge statement, not only … to protect our children but also for the health of our state going forward to help save lives.”

He urged legislators to vote for Senate Bill 218 and to consider voting for other measures still in play during this session.

One that’s been having trouble is Rep. Kimberly Moser’s bill to prohibit the use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, on school campuses and at school activities. Her House Bill 11 made it through the House Health and Family Services Committee in early February but has been stalled ever since. The amendment, which is one of several that have been proposed, would allow local school boards to opt out for the first three years.

Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.