Sometimes technology outpaces the government's ability to regulate it. That's what's happening with electronic cigarettes. Oregon lawmakers will consider a measure this month to restrict minors from buying e-cigarettes. The idea has broad, bipartisan support. But the details of the legislation are getting criticism from a surprising source.
Let's get this out of the way first. No one I talked to for this story thinks it's a good idea to sell e-cigarettes to teens. That's not where the controversy is. Instead, the dispute is over what exactly an e-cigarette is in the first place. For an answer, I turned to Justin Newman.
Justin Newman: "I would have been extremely happy having this in the beginning years of my marriage."
Newman is the co-founder of Emerald Vapors, a Eugene, Oregon company that makes e-liquid. That's the juice that gives e-cigarettes their flavor. And this is the sound of Newman taking a long drag on what is essentially a metal tube with batteries.
As he exhales, a big cloud fills the air in front of his face. It looks like second-hand smoke. The first clue that it's not? The odor. This stuff smelled vaguely like incense. The second clue? Unlike a traditional cigarette, this one had no flame. The batteries heat up a coil which vaporizes the liquid. Newman says some, but not all of his products contain nicotine. But he doesn't think any of it should be used by kids.
Justin Newman: "We believe that adults need to make that decision, and we would like to keep the product out of the hands of minors."
Emerald Vapors operates three retail locations and Newman says they don't sell to teens. He's backing legislation in Salem that would make that the law for every dealer. Idaho and Washington already ban e-cigarette sales to youth. But the idea is running into some opposition from some groups you might not expect.
Carrie Nyssen: "My name is Carrie Nyssen and I'm the regional director of advocacy for the American Lung Association."
That's right. The American Lung Association. They certainly support a ban on selling e-cigarettes to kids. So why the hesitation?
Carrie Nyssen: "I just think until we know more about what it does to lung health and what it does to public health, I think we just need to be very, very careful about any legislation that we pass around e-cigarettes."
Unlike tobacco products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate e-cigarettes. The agency is studying the issue but for now says the risk of using them is unknown. But that uncertainty isn't why the Lung Association and other public health groups including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are balking at e-cigarette legislation in Oregon and other states. Instead, they're concerned that the bills define the products as something entirely separate from regular cigarettes. That means they won't automatically be taxed and won't fall under most smoking bans. There is a proposal in Salem to restrict indoor use of e-cigarettes. But Republican Representative Andy Olson says he doesn't think lawmakers will go that far this year.
Andy Olson: "I think because of the short session, I think the best thing we want to do is kind of get a foot in the door right now and at least prohibit minors from being able to purchase e-cigarettes."
Forty-three lawmakers have signed onto Representative Olson's bill to ban e-cigarette sales to teens. A separate measure would tax e-cigarettes like tobacco products. That bill has just one sponsor.