Multnomah County Commission Shows Need for Tighter Nicotine Laws

Oregon is one of just nine states that doesn’t bar minors from buying electronic cigarettes, which along with traditional tobacco products are geared toward children with high concentrations of the same tasty chemicals found in Kool-Aid and candy. The tobacco industry has also exploited a loophole in the law that bans flavored cigarettes by offering candy-flavored cigarillos.

A meeting of the Multnomah County Commissioners on a wintry Thursday morning will likely set the groundwork for a push in Salem next year to regulate the highly unregulated electronic cigarette market and give authorities more control over tobacco sales.

The commissioners invited James Pankow, a chemist at Portland State University, who in May published research in the New England Journal of Medicine revealing that the chemicals used to flavor tobacco and the nicotine “juice” used in e-cigarettes were the exact same ones used in children’s Kool-Aid, just in much higher concentrations.

“When you open a package of this product, you are smelling Cherry Kool-Aid,” said Pankow, referring to cherry-flavored cigarillos, which are essentially cigarettes wrapped in a cigar veneer.

He said the amount of benzaldehyde, that artificial flavoring that vaguely resembles cherry that kids crave, made up as much as 4 percent of the liquid in artificial cherry-flavored nicotine juice, which he said is about two teaspoons for every cup of liquid.

“The tobacco industry has a vested in interest in marketing to children,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, a former state legislator. “We had to fight Joe Camel. We had to fight Snus. Now we have to fight flavored e-cigarettes.”

Commissioner Judy Shiprack noted that the candy flavoring lures youth into starting a product who might otherwise be put off by a tobacco taste: “All these wonderful childhood flavors are really there to enhance the experience of ingesting poison,” she said.

Unlike cigarillos and other tobacco products, electronic cigarettes, which heat liquid nicotine and allow the user to inhale water vapor for a buzz, are legal for all ages. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed banning them for minors, but the rules have yet to take effect, leaving it to the states to step in to keep them out of the hands of minors. Oregon is one of just a nine states that has not put an age restriction on their sales.

Regular use of the once-rare devices reported among Oregon teens has risen from 2 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2013, even as the regular use of cigarettes has fallen from 12 percent to 9 percent.

The proposed FDA rules will ban the use of electronic cigarettes for minors, and put the devices along with cigars, cigarillos and pipe tobacco under the FDA’s authority. Currently, the FDA has control just over cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, which allows tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarillos in candy and clove flavors even after the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 banned candy-flavored and clove cigarettes.

As a result, cigarillos have been growing in popularity among teens even as cigarette use falls, and cigars and cigarillos are now more popular among black youth than cigarettes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Sales of these little cigars more than doubled between 1997 and 2007, and flavored varieties amounted to 80 percent of the sales.

A bipartisan group of 29 state attorneys general, including Oregon’s Ellen Rosenblum, sent a letter at the end of the public comment period in August, urging the FDA to taking a stronger stand and ban online sales, ban advertising of electronic cigarettes on TV and radio, and ban the use of candy flavors in e-cigarettes and a host of other tobacco products proposed to come under FDA authority.

FDA spokeswoman Jenny Haliski said the agency was reviewing the attorneys general's comments along with others that were submitted, and the agency intends to issue its final ruling as quickly as possible. The ban on electronic cigarette sales to those under 18, assuming that remains in the final FDA rule, will take effect 30 days after the agency makes its announcement.

Oregon legislators are likely to go beyond just banning sales to minors, however. Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, supported a bill in the 2014 session that would ban sales to minors and extend Oregon’s ban on smoking in public places to include electronic cigarettes. A competing bill from Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, would have simply set the legal age at 18.

Republicans and other opponents argued that electronic cigarette vapor is not as harmful as tobacco smoke, and the devices could be used to help smokers quit. The FDA website says little is known about any health benefit or the exact health risks, except that nicotine is highly addictive and toxic in high concentrations. Its use promotes vascular disease and can cause low birth rates if used by pregnant women, said Pankow.

The conflict between the two bills caused Tomei to spike both bills rather than wage a floor fight with Republicans that Democrats might lose. Tomei is retiring at the end of the year, but Democrats are certain to reintroduce their bill, and with bigger majorities in both the Senate and House, they may pass it even if a few moderate Democrats continue to balk.

The bigger Democratic majority should also boost prospects for another piece of tobacco-related legislation: giving the state authority to regulate tobacco sales, which are currently exempt from the oversight that alcohol faces from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. This agency will oversee enforcement of marijuana laws in July, but without further action, retailers will have much less threat selling smokes to 17-year-olds than they would selling booze to 20-year-olds.

“Multnomah County has one of the highest illegal sales rates to minors,” said Joanne Fuller, the director of the Multnomah County Health Department.

Chris can be reached at [email protected]

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