Utah lawmakers are planning numerous bills to crack down on youth vaping

HERRIMAN, Utah -- Stewart Hudnall takes the devices out of a box he keeps in his office.

By the time he's done, the vape pens and other devices cover two desks. These are vaping devices and e-cigarettes he has confiscated over the past two school years at Herriman High.

"I thought we were on the downward slope of it, but Thursday and Friday we confiscated six kids' worth of stuff again," the assistant principal told FOX 13.

vaping devices

Assistant Herriman High Principal Stewart Hudnall shows off vaping devices he has confiscated over the last two school years. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Hudnall estimates as many as 30% of the student body of 2,300 has tried vaping and what he sees is not unique to Herriman High -- schools across Utah and the nation are reporting similar situations.

"I have students that can hardly go a class period without having to sneak into the bathroom to take a hit," he said. "So we’re having discussions with parents about Nicorette, nicotine patches, what can your student do to help get off the nicotine addiction?"

A recent report by Utah's Department of Human Services found e-cigarette use has skyrocketed to the top item that youth are experimenting with, passing alcohol and marijuana for the first time.

Faced with 125 cases so far of vaping-related lung injury and one fatality in Utah linked to black market products, some lawmakers see a mandate to do something. FOX 13 is told there could be as many as 20 bills in the 2020 legislative session to deal with vaping.

"I think the legislature understands this is a problem. It’s something we need to address," said Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy. "Again, it’s always the balancing act of how much government intervention do we do without stepping on the toes of the freedom of adults who are using these appropriately."

Sen. Cullimore is proposing a bill to spend millions to help crack down on those who illegally sell to minors.

"I’ve seen examples of adults who are posing as kids on Instagram and Snapchat and selling vape products to kids on the black market," he said. "It’s really to address those situations."

Others are considering running bills that would cap the number of vape shops in a community, raise the taxes on e-cigarette products, ban the sale of flavored juices, or raise the taxes on vaping products.

But a group representing vape shop owners fears lawmakers could go too far with their regulations.

"We don’t want kids using this. It’s an adult product for adult smokers," said Juan Bravo, who heads the Utah Vapor Business Association. "I just cannot sit idly by and allow the government to hand pick winners and losers. I can’t have that."

He said the UVBO has gone to lawmakers with their own proposals for regulation. Their ideas include some taxation and mandating the use of age-verification systems for retailers that sell vaping products. It's had mixed success, he said.

"We know how to address the issue of youth use, we know how to address the issue of making penalties hurt retailers who are caught selling to minors," Bravo said.

vaping devices

Vaping devices confiscated over the last two school years at Herriman High are on display in a classroom. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

The group successfully sued and won a lawsuit against the Utah Department of Health which imposed emergency rules banning the sale of flavored juices at non-specialty tobacco retailers.

"We want to work with them and I’ll tell you, we are desperately trying to avoid the outcome we had with the emergency rule," Bravo told FOX 13.

Lawmakers have varying perspectives on the vaping issue. For example, Sen. Cullimore said he doesn't necessarily believe taxes should drive social policy.

"I’m looking at curbing and ceasing that use among youth," he told FOX 13.

Hudnall said the majority of students he confiscates vaping devices from tell him they don't buy them from vape shops -- but get them from friends or someone they have a connection to. He said he would like the legislature to address the flavored juices that seem to be a draw for teens, and the amount of nicotine in them.

Hudnall also hopes for education. To help inform parents about what their children may be doing, he meets with them regularly to talk about signs to look for.

"The vast majority don’t know their kid is smoking because it’s easy to conceal, it’s easy to hide. Even the smell is going to be skewed, it’s going to be kind of a fruity smell because the normal cues of them smoking a cigarette, it’s not there," he said.

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