Congress 'All Talk and No Action' on Teen Vaping Epidemic

FILE - In this April 23, 2014 file photo, a man smokes an electronic cigarette in Chicago. San Francisco has approved a bill that bans the sale of flavored nicotine-laced liquid used in electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco products. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the ban on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Supervisors say that nicotine masked in cotton candy, banana cream, mint and other flavors entices kids into a lifetime of addiction. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

A new survey out of Minnesota found that one in four 11th graders reported using e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days, which is a 54% increase from the same survey conducted in 2016. The Washington Post reported that “more than 1 in 9 high school seniors report vaping nicotine on a near-daily basis.” Given the rise of what some are calling the teen vaping epidemic, legislators at the state and federal level are looking for public policy solutions to reverse this unhealthy trend.

A Washington State agency recently developed and released an app to combat teen vaping that teaches users how to manage cravings and get on the path to quitting. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment partnered with the state’s Department of Education to create a Vape-Free Schools kit, which they are encouraging schools to adopt. Massachusetts announced in September that they are instituting a 4-month ban on the sale of all vaping products.

What everyone seemingly can agree on is the need to do something, but we have seen little action in Congress to address the epidemic. Thankfully, there is a piece of legislation introduced earlier this year that could have a positive impact and should be passed by Congress as soon as possible.

This solution comes in the form of legislation that will make it more difficult for teens to purchase e-cigarettes online. While many teens acquire their e-cigarettes through social sources, like their friends, nearly a third of teens who bought these products reported buying them online.

Currently, purchasing e-cigarettes online does not require any age verification under federal law. Many online retailers have some age verification requirements, like submitting your date of birth and social security number or uploading a picture of an ID. But according to the data, these measures are not sufficient.

Earlier this year, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced Senate Bill 1253, the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act, which would mandate in-person age verification upon physical delivery of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

As Senator Feinstein explained, “Our bill would help curb that trend by treating e-cigarettes the same as regular cigarettes, making it much harder for minors to purchase them online.” This bill would also treat online retailers the same as traditional retailers, who are already required to physically check IDs before handing over tobacco products and data shows are much less likely to sell to minors.

This bill is gaining momentum, with the House version of this legislation having recently passed.

Despite this issue getting national attention Congress has yet to achieve real legislative victories to address teen vaping like passing the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act and sending it to the President to sign into law. We need our Senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, to support this legislation and help make it law.

The action that is being taken on the federal level, like the potential new flavored e-cigarette ban that will exempt vape stores, might make the problem worse and not better. That’s because according to a recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion, 22.3% of teens who bought their e-cigarette products purchased them at a vape shop, whereas only 5.6% reported purchasing these products at a convenience store. This means that teens are three times more likely to purchase e-cigarettes and other vaping products at vape stores, despite the fact that there are more than 10 times as many convenience stores nationwide.

While I am grateful that leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump have been vocal on the need to address the teen vaping epidemic, we must ensure elected officials are promoting solutions that will be effective at addressing the problem. Thankfully, officials like my home-state Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have an opportunity to support bipartisan legislation that will keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teens. I remain hopeful they will rise to the occasion and support the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act.

Ted Alexander is a member of the North Carolina State Senate.