WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Beginning Aug. 5, proprietors in Westchester County cannot sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. A bill raising the minimum age of purchase from 18 was approved by the Westchester County Board of Legislators on June 4 and signed into law two days later by County Executive George Latimer.
At the June 4 meeting, where the bill passed by a 16-1 vote, legislators said one impetus for the change was the recent popularity of vaping products among teenagers. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 11 percent of high school students and 4.3 percent of middle school students use some form of what the federal government is calling Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, or ENDS.
The oils (or e-liquids) that fill the vaporizers are sold separately from the devices and come in thousands of flavors, which legislators say may be a reason for its popularity among teenagers.
County Legislator Gordon Burrows (R-Yonkers) said, after hearing from teenagers about the frequency in which their classmates are using vaping devices, it made “common sense” to support this legislation.
“Particularly when you talk about the marketing of flavors of these tobacco products—bubble gum and apple,” Burrows said. “Who are they trying to market these products to? Obviously, to our youth. This is an easy vote, even though it goes against my instinct.”
Legislators were particularly influenced by a film created by Jack Waxman, a senior at Scarsdale High School. His film, documenting the dangers of Juuling (named for a particular brand of e-cigarette), has been viewed nearly 70,000 times on YouTube and was reported on by national media outlets. (To watch, search “JUULERS AGAINST JUUL” on YouTube.)
This law, Burrows said, will hopefully put an end to 18-year-old high school students buying vaping devices and distributing them to younger students in middle school and high school. County Legislator Catherine Parker (D-Rye) noted that, in some communities, the middle schools and high schools are on the same campus.
One of those school districts is Katonah-Lewisboro. Last month, the Bedford Town Board passed a law relegating the sale of vaping products to only one of its 18 zoning districts. The goal of the legislation was to keep the products out of its downtown areas and away from schools, playgrounds, churches and other areas where children may congregate. Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said he applauded the county’s efforts.
“I think any effort to curb young people’s involvement with vaping is worthwhile,” Selesnick said. “In the last decade or so, prior to the advent of vaping, I believe there had been positive strides in decreasing the use of tobacco products by young people. It seems evident that the vaping phenomenon is moving us once again in an unhealthy direction.”
Dr. George Stone, superintendent of Lakeland schools in Cortlandt and Yorktown, said students vaping in school is a “very serious problem” and a growing concern from a health and safety standpoint. Though he supports any legislation aimed at decreasing or eliminating the use of tobacco products, Stone said, the previous age restriction did little to affect its use in middle schools and high schools.
“The real need is for greater focus on education, health risks and parental involvement,” Stone said. “More and more studies show that there are serious health issues associated with use of these products, and we need to continue demonstrating this to students. When I was in school, we were required in health class to watch graphic depictions of the results of long-term use, and it had a major impact on me and my desire not to smoke. We also need to address the industry that sells and promotes these products and give the impression that they aren’t as harmful as we know they are.”
According to the FDA, tobacco products are the leading cause of preventable death, killing 480,000 people annually. In 2014, 350 kids under the age of 18 became regular smokers every day, and almost one-third will die from it. The county said fewer smokers would also result in less smoke-related health care costs, potentially saving New York State billions of dollars annually.
The case against regulation
Lara Galper, who owns Vape Escape in Yorktown, said most of her customers are already older than 21. From a financial standpoint, Galper said she is “not worried about” losing customers between the ages of 18 and 20. Calling herself a reasonable person, Galper said she disagrees with the decision but understands the concern about student vaping. However, until all of New York gets on board, she said, the law will be ineffective.
“They’re pushing our customers to Putnam [County],” Galper said. “It’s not going to make an impact on this student population. Our business is going to be impacted slightly.”
Westchester County is one of many counties in the state to raise the age of purchase to 21. Others include New York City, Albany County, Cattaraugus County, Chautauqua County, Cortland County, Onondaga County, Orange County, Rockland County, Schenectady County, Suffolk County, Sullivan County and Tompkins County.
Liquids in e-cigarettes can contain varying levels of nicotine (usually between 3 and 24 milligrams). They can also be purchased without nicotine. The liquid is heated into an aerosol that the user inhales, according to the FDA. The liquids do not contain any tobacco, yet are considered a tobacco product by the FDA, meaning they are held to the same regulations as cigarettes.
People like Galper, however, say that vaping is healthier than smoking cigarettes. The e-liquids leave behind no smoke, smell or litter, and are less expensive than cigarettes. Vaporizers are often seen as an option for people looking to cut back on nicotine but still satisfy an oral fixation.
During the June 4 meeting, legislators argued that if someone begins smoking or vaping later in life, it would be easier for them to quit. According to the Institute of Medicine, raising the age to 21 would decrease tobacco use among teenagers by 12 percent by the time they become adults. When New York City raised its age to 21, its studies revealed that 80 percent of residents who smoke started before they were 21.
These legislators, Galper said, wrongly assume that smokers and vapers want to quit.
“If you’re worried about kids, worry about kids,” Galper said. “Don’t regulate adults.”
Legislator John Testa (R-Peekskill) was the only member of the county board to vote against the legislation. He reasoned that it’s already illegal for most high school students to own vaping products. In order to curtail its use among teenagers, he said, the schools and parents must enforce and educate.
“When you’re 18, you can go to war,” Testa said. “You can kill or be killed. You can vote, you can sign a contract, you can get a credit card, you’re considered an adult in court, so to ban things or to make things [difficult to access] by depriving others who can do things as adults, I think, is the wrong way to go.”
Flavored liquid ban?
Galper said her store can survive the county legislation, but a bill being considered by the New York State Senate could be a death blow.
Bill S8610 would, if approved, prohibit the sale of flavored e-liquids throughout New York, effective immediately. On May 31, the bill passed through the Health Committee, which voted 14-1 to send it to the Senate floor for consideration. Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Yorktown) voted in favor of it.
“I support prohibiting the sale of flavored e-liquids, which were designed to appeal to a younger audience,” Murphy said. “A national panel of public health experts from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently concluded that vaping may prompt teenagers or young adults to try regular cigarettes, putting them at higher risk for addiction. There still needs to be more research done to determine the long-term effects on a young person’s brain development, as well as the effect on their heart and lungs.”
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City). In a press release introducing his bill on May 15, Hannon said, “Something must be done to stave off the temptation so that we can reduce the number of people who become addicted to nicotine and become regular tobacco users. Eliminating the availability of flavored e-liquids like cotton candy and bubble gum intentionally marketed to attract minors, in addition to expanding current state efforts on prevention and education, and addressing the loophole in enforcement will do just this.”
Galper said most of her clientele are 21 and older, and many from the 50-plus crowd prefer these flavors that legislators say are marketed toward children. During the course of a 30-minute interview with Galper, three customers, all 30 or older, purchased flavors such as peach mango, berry and watermelon. Galper’s husband is a fan of the cotton candy flavor.
If the legislation passes, vape shops would only be allowed to sell tobacco and menthol flavored e-liquids. Galper said she is concerned that the law would immediately take effect, giving retailers no grace period to adjust or sell the rest of their inventory.
The New York State legislative session concluded earlier this month. The bill was not voted on.