SALT LAKE CITY — Increasing electronic cigarette use among teens is a concern of Utah lawmakers, but they will likely stop short of making the nicotine-vaporizing products illegal in the state.
"I'm not about to make a knee-jerk decision that will end up restricting the freedoms of people," said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs. "Given that we know so little, I'm reluctant to jump in."
Madsen instead suggests that the state's rule-making body impose enhanced penalties on practices that are already illegal.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has pushed for tighter e-cigarette legislation for years. Though he's said he would prefer a statewide smoking ban.
With help from other lawmakers, Ray passed a law that restrict the sale of traditional cigarettes to minors, and he hopes this year to clarify the rules to include paraphernalia used to "vape" with e-cigarettes, which is a growing trend among Utah youths.
Brian Bennion, director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department, told members of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee on Friday that one in five kids in eighth, 10th and 12th grades reports "regular use" of e-cigarettes.
"It's an epidemic," he said. "It's a concern."
Health departments across the state have started enacting their own regulations, such as performing compliance checks on retailers and monitoring for the safe manufacture of e-juice cartridges, but they lack proper enforcement mechanisms. Bennion said statewide regulations would give them better authority.
"There is no oversight by the FDA or other enforcement or regulatory agency," he said. "Poisonings have skyrocketed as a result of the availability of flavors that are enticing to kids."
Jennifer Dailey, executive director of the Utah Academy for Family Physicians, proposed that legislators put a steeper tax on the sale of e-cigarette products to keep them out of the hands of children. She also asked lawmakers to consider adding e-cigarettes to the tenets of Utah's Indoor Clean Air Act, which prohibits smoking in and around public buildings.
"We're not trying to dis-incentivize these, we're just trying to eliminate the use among children," Dailey said. "We know that nicotine use as a child predisposes a person to a lifetime of addiction."
Madsen argued that public policy won't change human nature.
"I'm reluctant to invoke the power of the government to socially engineer change," he said, adding that more information, including scientific research, is necessary before responsible policies on e-cigarettes can be made.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said that as a physician, he has seen more teens who have smoked e-cigarettes and become addicted than he has seen adults using the product to quit smoking.
"It's just a way to get nicotine into your body," he said. "Nicotine any way is equally addicting."
Dailey is concerned that as the popularity of e-cigarettes increase, more teens will use them, causing even more public health issues down the road.
"When children are exposed to nicotine at a young age, it primes their brains for nicotine addiction," she said. "I know that these are marketed as being less harmful than traditional cigarettes, but they are not harmless."
A 2010 law created restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and gave school districts the authority to prohibit use of the products in schools.
This year, Ray has requested a bill file to address the "regulation and taxation of e-cigarettes," but the bill has yet to be introduced. He said there is "more to come" on the issue.