Health groups and local governments say decades of work to keep tobacco products out of the hands of kids could be overturned through a House measure billed as prohibiting the sale of trendy electronic cigarettes to minors.
The American Lung Association of Florida, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, local officials and Students Working Against Tobacco have found themselves fighting the measure (HB 169) that would prevent youths under 18 from buying electronic cigarettes. That is because the proposal also would ban local efforts to restrict the sales of cigarettes and other tobacco-related products.
"The bill is another attempt by big tobacco to weaken protections that we all seek to keep electronic devices out of the hands of our children," Brenda Olsen, chief operating officer of the American Lung Association in Florida, said during a news conference Monday on the steps of the Old Capitol.
However, one of the bill's sponsors said the opposition is "unwarranted," as language is planned to clarify that the legislation would only preclude local governments from making new rules about the sale of tobacco products.
The bill has completed the committee process. While it could be taken up by the House later this week, the measure has yet to be scheduled for a floor appearance.
The state currently doesn't have rules on electronic cigarettes, the nicotine-delivery tubes that heat an often-flavored nicotine solution into a water vapor, which users draw in before exhaling as if smoking a cigarette. The use is called vaping.
The ire of the health groups is an amendment that Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, added to the bill during its final committee stop on March 27, preempting municipal and county ordinances on the sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes.
Many of those local laws require tobacco products to be placed behind the counter, forcing customers to ask for specific items before making purchases.
Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, a Ponte Vedra Beach Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said Monday the amendment was intended to only ban new local rules on the sales of tobacco and electronic cigarettes, and that Artiles is working on another amendment to "clarify" that the changes don't impact existing local regulations.
"It is my understanding that any rules that are in place are going to stay in place," Renuart said. "It will be just on making new restrictions; like if a municipality were to say they're not going to allow any tobacco to be mixed with flavors. It becomes real confusing for retailers."
Artiles, who was not immediately available for comment Monday, said during the March 27 committee meeting that the bill seeks uniformity in the regulation of sales. Among the backers of the bill is the Florida Retail Federation.
"We can't have 415 cities and 67 counties doing different ordinances,'' Artiles said.
Local governments don't want any state rules that keep them from enacting local restrictions.
Florida Association of Counties President Bryan Desloge, a Leon County commissioner, said during the news conference that the state government is overstepping "home rule" on the sale of tobacco and electronic cigarette products.
"There is a role for the Legislature, but in this case we feel pretty strongly that we're the people that are at the soccer games, we're the people at the Publix, we're the people at the churches and synagogues, and we're the people that are most responsive to the needs of the community," Desloge said.
Olsen said the tobacco industry is using the Legislature to subvert local rules as it "has its strength here at the state house. It doesn't have its strength at the local communities."
Olsen said the groups are more supportive of a measure (SB 224) by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, that received unanimous support March 18 from the Senate.
Benacquisto's measure includes electronic cigarettes with the prohibition on sales of cigarette and tobacco sales to minors. It doesn't include the language to preempt local tobacco laws.
Renuart said no discussions have occurred on which version would move forward to restrict the sale and possession of electronic cigarettes to minors.