Growing concern about the nationwide outbreak of severe lung injuries from vaping has energized the movement in Kansas to change what nicotine products are available and who can buy them.
Two people have died from the mysterious vaping-related illness and 10 have been hospitalized. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports more than 800 cases in 46 states, including 12 confirmed deaths. In recent weeks, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan and New York have moved to restrict or ban vaping products and devices.
In Kansas, the crisis is creating pressure for the biggest rewrite of the state’s tobacco and vaping laws in years, including a raise in the age of purchase for nicotine products from 18 to 21.
The focus on purchasing age dovetails with CDC data showing that nearly 40 percent of vaping illnesses reported nationwide have occurred in people under 21.
State action would bring Kansas in line with more than two dozen of its cities and counties that have already reset purchase age to 21 in recent years, including Topeka and Kansas City, Kan. A statewide law could be coming in 2020, lawmakers and advocates say.
“There’s a ton of momentum around it, not only because there have been a number of communities that have already passed local ordinances but because of everything that’s come out in the news recently about the epidemic problem of youth use,” said Jordan Feuerborn, the Kansas government relations director for the American Cancer Society Action Network.
The sense of urgency has spread to school systems as well. The Olathe school board voted Friday to sue Juul, the nation’s largest e-cigarette manufacturer.
Superintendent John Allison said in a statement that vaping “has caused a serious disruption in our buildings.”
Earlier this month, Goddard school officials announced plans for a similar lawsuit.
The prospects for action are less clear in neighboring Missouri, where one person has died from vaping.
Calls to more than a half-dozen Missouri lawmakers this week seeking comment were not returned. Gov. Mike Parson’s office didn’t respond to questions.
“I haven’t heard from any of my colleagues about any proposals or initiatives for next year, although I’m sure that it is top of mind and a concern for a number of us,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat representing part of Clay County.
Arthur said looking at the age restrictions might be a “logical starting place” but said she needs more information.
“I think it will take sort of a bipartisan push to get something done on this front,” she said.
Missouri has the lowest tobacco tax in the country, at 17 cents per pack. Kansas taxes at $1.29 per pack.
In 2014, the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly approved legislation prohibiting people younger than 18 from purchasing electronic cigarettes. But the bill exempted e-cigarettes from some restrictions on tobacco sales and advertising, including the 17 cent-per-pack cigarette tax.
Groups like the American Cancer Society vehemently opposed the measure, saying it would complicate future regulation of e-cigarettes. Then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, but the legislature voted to override.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, sponsor of the 2014 bill, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
In Kansas, efforts to combat vaping and tobacco use have received a boost from the state’s top health official.
“People are dying from vaping and there’s hundreds of new cases each week of serious and fatal lung injuries from vaping,” Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Dr. Lee Norman said in a video on the agency’s web site.
“We used to think that vaping was a fairly straight forward way for people to ween off nicotine, but with young people vaping now, and even older people doing it, there’s lots of illnesses and curiously we don’t know with 100% certainty what’s causing it.”
While health officials urge people to stop vaping, those who vape nicotine say they see it as a path to a better life that doesn’t involve cigarettes.
Vapers say the problem is misinformation and where users shop. At Puffs Wichita one afternoon last week, Casey Neal said he switched from cigarettes to vaping three years ago and feels it’s easier to breathe since the change.
“The regular vape shops like this are not killing anyone. They’re vaping the black market on e-cartridges,” said Neal, 26, of the those who have gotten sick. “Cigarettes have been killing people since they came out.”
The CDC said it does not know the specific cause of the illnesses. A specific device or substance has not been linked to all cases.
Nicotine bills will be filed
Leading Kansas lawmakers on health issues said they were open to a variety of options — including raising the purchase age for and tax on tobacco products, and limiting flavors that are attractive to young vapers.
“There has been a fair amount of discussion. It’s kind of interesting as things seem to escalate on the national level as well as the local level, there becomes a bigger appetite to address the problem somehow, some way,” said Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican who chairs the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.
Given that the session doesn’t begin for more than 100 days, he said it’s early for him to have strong enthusiasm for any one idea.
Rep. Monica Murnan, a Pittsburg Democrat and ranking minority member of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said it’s important to look at public health issues holistically, from regulation to consumer education and personal choice.
“I get concerned sometimes when we believe that we can just slap one thing down and it’s going to fix a broader issue,” Murnan said.
Feuerborn said the American Cancer Society along with its partners, collectively known as the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition, will offer a bill to raise the tobacco purchase age statewide this coming year.
“It does feel like there’s a ton of urgency,” Feuerborn said.
Health leader supports higher age
More than 25 local governments in Kansas have raised the purchase age for nicotine products to 21. Kansas City, Kan., became the first in 2015. The latest is Newton, where the city commission voted Tuesday to raise the age beginning in 2020.
A little more than 27 percent of Kansans lived where the purchasing age is 21 in March, according to the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation. It’s unclear what percentage of 18- to 21-year-olds are in those areas.
Statewide legislation would vastly increase the number of people affected.
Norman voiced support for prohibiting sale of nicotine products to people under 21 in testimony to a congressional committee on Wednesday. He called for increased scrutiny of vaping marketing and said anti-smoking laws need to be broadened to include e-cigarettes.
“Given that we don’t fully know the health effects of vaping solutions, or oftentimes even the contents, we must apply consumer protection fundamentals to protect our citizens, much as we would tainted meats or malfunctioning automobile airbags,” Norman told members of Congress.
Norman has gone further than Gov. Laura Kelly in raising the issue of purchasing age. Asked Tuesday what options her administration is exploring — and whether she supports raising the age to 21 — she didn’t answer directly.
“That’s not been part of the conversation,” Kelly said. She added that Norman has urged people to stop vaping until there’s a better understanding of its effects.
Kelly’s power limited
While governors in some states have taken aggressive executive action, Kelly’s options appear to be limited. The Kansas governor doesn’t have the authority to declare a public health emergency, according to a 2015 chart from The Network for Public Health Law.
“The governor’s ability to take executive action on banning vaping or e-cigarette products is somewhat more limited in Kansas than other states,” Lauren Fitzgerald, a Kelly spokeswoman, said in an email. “We are currently looking into all options, but plan to work with the legislature toward policy that would combat this epidemic.”
Feuerborn said unintended consequences can sometimes come with executive action. For instance, if flavored e-cigarettes are taken off the market but other flavored tobacco isn’t restricted, it can encourage people to switch products.
Sen. Ed Berger, a Hutchinson Republican, said he would prefer changes come from the Legislature.
“I think the results are better and you have better buy in,” he said.
Jason Hancock in Jefferson City and Michael Stavola in Wichita contributed to this article.