By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS: An Ohio bill to keep electronic cigarettes out of the hands of minors cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, amid questions from some anti-smoking groups about how the proposal defines the products.
The proposal prohibits those under age 18 from obtaining, possessing and using e-cigarettes. Sellers would have to confirm buyers’ ages before they could purchase them.
The House passed an earlier version of the bill, and representatives would have to agree to the Senate changes before the measure could go to the governor.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that provide users with aerosol puffs that typically contain nicotine, and sometimes flavorings like fruit, mint or chocolate. Users get their nicotine without the thousands of chemicals, tar or odor of regular cigarettes.
State Sen. John Eklund held up an e-cigarette on the Senate floor so his colleagues could see it before they voted.
“Today, any child with a few bucks can walk into a retail establishment in Ohio and buy one,” said Eklund, a Chardon Republican, while describing the need for restrictions.
Ohio’s bill defines e-cigarettes as “alternative nicotine products” rather than tobacco-derived products. Few studies have explored exactly what chemicals are in them, and in what concentrations, and whether those levels are harmful.
The Ohio State Medical Association and other anti-smoking groups have questioned the new category, saying it could exempt the products from taxation laws that govern tobacco among other issues.
State Sen. Charleta Tavares told her colleagues she supported the bill, but thought more should be done to address how e-cigarettes are taxed and whether they can be used indoors.
“Skirting around the law by coming up with new devices that are still nicotine products — they should be treated on an equal basis with their counterparts,” Tavares, a Columbus Democrat, said.
The new definition was crafted with the help of Lorillard Inc., the nation’s third-biggest tobacco company based in Greensboro, N.C. It acquired e-cigarette maker Blu Ecigs in 2012.
Kurt Leib, Lorillard’s Midwest regional manager of government affairs, told the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee in written testimony last month that e-cigarettes don’t fit neatly into the state’s current law. He said the company worked on a broader definition to cover newer products such as lozenges that are coming onto the market.
Anti-smoking groups told the committee it was inappropriate for the industry to help write the law.
“This is a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse,” the American Lung Association, American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in joint, written testimony to the Senate committee. The organizations proposed updating the definition of tobacco products instead.
The measure has the backing of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the Ohio Wholesale Marketers Association.
The state’s attorney general also expressed support for the bill last month, saying in a letter to a Senate committee’s chairman that the proposal could keep young people from starting a lifelong addiction.
Attorney General Mike DeWine said the legislation “would help protect our youth against the unknown health effects of e-cigarettes and the known effects of nicotine addiction.”