Sen. Renee Unterman

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.

ATLANTA — Lawmakers have set their sights on vaping restrictions in Georgia. 

A new bill would raise the minimum age to purchase vapor products to 21 from the current age of 18 and toughen penalties for selling tobacco, nicotine and vaping products to minors. It also sets penalties for marketing of vaping products that is specifically designed to be "attractive to minors."

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, introduced the legislation Friday that would also require schools to teach about the risks of vaping and smoking as part of their curriculum.

Unterman told CNHI she learned about the problem from roundtables with youth. 

“The main thing that’s in the bill is about education, because that’s what I’ve learned from these kids, the main part of prevention is education," she said on Friday. "This particular bill which is not anything to do with the federal order is requiring the state board of education and individual counties and cities to incorporate vaping into their current drug and alcohol awareness.”

The legislation comes after the the state Department of Public Health issued a health advisory on vaping in October, following the second vaping-related death in Georgia.

As of Jan. 14, 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta, there have been 2,668 cases of hospitalizations or deaths from lung injury associated with e-cigarette and vaping products reported in all 50 states. Of those, there have been 60 deaths in 27 states — including multiple deaths in Georgia.

Legislators warned of possible vaping restrictions during study committees before the session. Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the House Health and Human Services, said she expected legislation to curb underage vaping, while advocates argued it is safer than tobacco use.

“It seems a little bit premature since the public is being the guinea pig, especially our kids, to say vaping is safer than cigarettes,” Cooper said in December. “It just seems like to me this is a whole lot of uncharted territory. But, that’s my personal opinion after listening that, there’s just so much that we don’t know and the medical model is first do no harm and that means move with caution.”

The legislation, known as SB 298, comes after President Donald Trump signed a bill raising the age of tobacco and e-cigarette sales to 21.

But during committee meetings on vaping, lawmakers also heard from vape shop owners and former cigarette smokers, who testified that vaping helps kick tobacco addiction. Vape shop owners said that they are all on the same side — to keep potentially dangerous drugs out of the hands of youth and fight “big tobacco” companies.

“The truth of the matter is, if any of you don’t smoke, I don’t need to see you in my shop,” Keith Gossett, Columbus vape shop owner said. “I am there to help smokers, that’s what I’m there for. I know that this product works because I am a 45-year long smoker.”

Vape shop owners, he said, are strict on keeping products out of the hands of children.

But Unterman doesn't "buy into" that argument.

“I come from a background of health care and being a former nurse. And I know that anytime you put any substance into your lungs, that it's bad for you," Unterman said. "And I do not buy into that, weening getting off of smoking with vaping because vaping now is just as bad, if you look at the incidence with the CDC report, the incidents of fatalities. Again smoking is long term cardiovascular disease damage, but vaping because you don't know what's in those cartridges can be almost immediate.”

Unterman said that she's trying to curb "lifetime addiction"

"When you see a new addiction process being started, when you see corporations that are marketing specifically to kids...using bubblegum flavors and naming them ‘candy pop,’ they are specifically targeting children," she told CNHI. "Well I’ve got a real problem with that. That is dramatically different than marketing to adults.”

State Reps. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, and Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert also announced in October last year that they intended to introduce anti-vape legislation on the House side.

In a statement to CNHI, Rich and Greene said they plan to move forward with legislation, adjusting to some of the changes on the federal level.

Rich said her goal is to make it more difficult for minors to access vaping products.

"Retailers were violating the age restriction we had in place; there is no reason to believe they will not continue to do so unless we disincentivize them," Rich said, "similar to the way we disincentivize them with respect to alcohol and tobacco sales to minors."

Unterman said her bill is set to have a hearing in front of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities committee Jan. 21.

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