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Let’s protect Arizona’s youth from health risks of e-cigarettes

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Early morning of the last day of the 2013 session, the Arizona House voted through a Senate bill that allegedly would protect our youth from e-cigarettes. No one knew much about e-cigarettes at the time, but we were convinced the bill created a gray area for e-cigarettes with little enforcement. And suspiciously, the biggest supporters were tobacco industry lobbyists. We took a tough no vote.

People asked: “Do you want kids to get their hands on these?” Of course, the answer was no.  What we knew was that most of these products contain nicotine, an incredibly addictive substance.  We knew that tobacco companies control the delivery and amount of nicotine in cigarettes. We suspected that e-cigarettes would soon follow suit.

Six years later, facts show our worst fears have come true:

  • Once a leader in tobacco control, Arizona’s tobacco use rate increased from 14 percent in 2016 to 15.6 percent in 2018.  
  • While youth consumption of cigarettes has gone down, youth consumption of e-cigarettes has exploded across the country. In Arizona, the state’s Criminal Justice Commission reports more than 19 percent of high school students use these products.
  • Arizona children under the age of 18 were able to purchase e-cigarettes from retailers at a rate of 38 percent.
  • The U.S. Surgeon General, Food and Drug Administration commissioner and Department of Health and Human Services secretary call youth use of e-cigarettes an “epidemic.”  
  • Arizona high schools and middle schools are spending increasing time and precious resources to rid their campuses of e-cigarettes.

We’re not here to say I told you so.  We’re here to say this problem doesn’t need another tobacco industry solution — it needs a health-focused solution.  

A bill moving through the process will put Arizona on good footing to help reverse these numbers. Under this bill e-cigarettes would be included in the definition of tobacco in two sections of Arizona law — one says minors cannot possess or be sold these items; the other dictates the conditions under which they can be sold and possessed. Lastly, the bill simply includes e-cigarettes in our statewide smoke-free law. These concepts were put forth separately earlier in the session, both bills got a fair hearing in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and ultimately passed without a single no vote in the full Senate.

It’s important to note that in 2009 the then nascent e-cigarette industry went to federal court to prevent regulation as a smoking cessation. The industry said they were a tobacco product, and the court agreed. That ruling now seems prescient as the major e-cigarette brands sold in the United States are either wholly or partially owned by legacy tobacco companies.

We agree with many health officials and organizations that e-cigarettes have some value as a smoking cessation device for adults.  But e-cigarettes are being sold to Arizona children as a safe, cool alternative to smoking, creating a new generation of nicotine dependent Arizonans. It is imperative that we protect Arizona’s youth from that dependency.  E-cigarettes must be regulated and sold for what they really are – a tobacco product for adults, with possession and sale to minors strictly prohibited.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, are chairwoman and vice chairwoman, respectively, of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee.

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