Advocates urged Connecticut lawmakers on Wednesday to impose tougher restrictions on electronic cigarettes and vapor products when they reconvene in January, warning how a growing number of young people are using these electronic delivery systems to "smoke" what could be harmful and addictive substances.
Jennifer DeWitt, executive director of the Central Naugatuck Valley Regional Action Council, told members of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee that every principal in the 12-town region her organization covers "has a desk drawer of these items that were confiscated from teens this year," including some retrofitted to smoke marijuana.
DeWitt said she also has received multiple reports of middle schoolers using the devices or selling them to peers.
"Tobacco is a success story for us in the overall picture of prevention. However, we will take a back-slide if electronic nicotine delivery devices continue to be available in the ways that they are currently," DeWitt said.
She said 7.2 percent of Connecticut high school students are e-cigarette users, marking a higher usage rate than all tobacco products combined.
DeWitt recommended several law changes, including taxing e-cigarettes and vapor products like tobacco products, prohibiting their use and sale to people under 21 years old and restricting efforts to market the products to youth, such as banning flavors. She said cherry and bubble gum are among the current flavors.
The General Assembly last year restricted where e-cigarettes and vapor products can be used. That same law also included language requiring the legislative committee to hold a hearing within 30 days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined whether to subject these products to the same restrictions as tobacco cigarettes. The FDA made such a ruling on May 5.
Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, the Public Health Committee's co-chairman, said the issue will likely be revisited in the 2017 regular legislative session. He said some of the ideas offered on Wednesday, such as taxation, have been considered in previous years. Ritter said there are some issues with further regulation, including opposition from adults who rely on the devices to wean themselves off tobacco cigarettes. He said it's also questionable whether the state has the legal ability to prevent the flavored products from being sold in Connecticut.
"We have people who research those things, and we'll rely on those opinions to guide us," Ritter said.
Lawmakers also were urged Wednesday to protect funding next year for tobacco control programs, money that instead has been used to help balance the state budget.
"The funding is going to be crucial throughout all of this," said Bryte Johnson, government relations director for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.