Kids can legally buy electronic cigarettes in Ohio — for now

A loophole in Ohio law allows children to legally purchase electronic cigarettes — tobacco alternatives that deliver addictive nicotine by vaporizing a liquid solution — but there is a battle underway in the Statehouse about the best way to block kids from buying the products.

Nearly 8 percent of high school students and 3.3 percent of middle school students have used e-cigarettes, according to the 2010 Ohio Youth Tobacco Survey conducted by the state Department of Health. Health advocacy groups say those numbers are expected to climb when the new survey comes out. A recent national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the use among kids in grades 6-12 more than doubled between 2011 and 2012 to 6.8 percent.

Shelly Kiser, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in Ohio, said e-cigarettes come in kid-friendly flavors such as bubble gum, cotton candy and gummy bear.

Tobacco companies and health care groups agree that youth access to e-cigarettes needs to be regulated but there is robust debate about how that should be done. Lorillard Tobacco Co, the nation’s third largest cigarette company, is working with state Rep. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, to pass House Bill 144, which would bar minors from buying, possessing or using “alternative tobacco products,” including e-cigarettes.

Lorillard lobbyist Kurt Leib told the House Health Committee that the tobacco company is working in several states to close loopholes that allow kids to buy e-cigarettes. “Lorillard strongly believes that electronic cigarettes are for adult recreational use only,” he testified in June.

The American Lung Association, however, opposes House Bill 144, saying it would create a new category of “alternative nicotine products” that could be subject to lower tax rates than tobacco.

Kiser told the House Health Committee that the new definition for alternative nicotine products is so broad that it could encompass “just about any tobacco product, including spit tobacco, dissolvable tobacco, or other new tobacco products that may be on the horizon.”

The American Lung Association wants e-cigarettes to be added to the state’s legal definition of tobacco, which would then ban their sale to kids.

The bill has had three hearings so far. State Rep. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, the bill sponsor, said her bill would cover any alternative nicotine product rolled out in the future by Big Tobacco companies, thus avoiding the need to keep updating the law. “I’m very surprised that anyone would oppose this bill.”

Kunze, who has two teenage daughters, said kids could easily try e-cigarettes and get hooked on nicotine. “It’s going to be a big problem in our community if we’re not careful.”

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