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"Vaping" is the term for using an e-cigarette. The gadgets are smokeless and use a combination of nicotine and flavoring to heat into a vapor. 

DES MOINES — Members of a Senate subcommittee began work Wednesday on legislation seeking to raise the legal age from 18 to 21 for buying, possessing or using tobacco, vapor or alternative nicotine products as a way of heading off what they called a “vaping epidemic” among Iowa high school students.

Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, who authored Senate File 607, said momentum is building nationally to address the issue of keeping addictive nicotine products away from young people, with at least 11 states having raised the tobacco age to 21 — including four in recent months.

“I think increasing the minimum age from 18 to 21 helps us ensure that no high school-aged student can legally purchase tobacco or vape products, bring them back to school, share them or sell them to their friends or classmates,” said Schneider, who noted that a large percentage of high-school students are of legal age now to buy the products.

However, Danielle Oswald-Thole of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said a more-effective approach would be to bring parity to current state regulations by defining e-cigarettes and vaping products the same as tobacco products — making them subject to similar taxation beyond just the sales tax and including them under Iowa’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

Also, she said, local governments should not be pre-empted from passing ordinances tougher than the state standards and lawmakers should not provide the military exemptions included in SF 607 if they want parity in regulations.

“Crossing out 18 and putting in 21 in a law that is not working,” said Oswald-Thole after the meeting. “Everybody today seemed to agree that we’ve got an epidemic of e-cigarette use and a continued problem around tobacco use. That’s because the current law isn’t working.”

Owners of the shops that sell vaping products who addressed the subcommittee members generally were opposed to raising the age to 21, but the legislation had backing of the company that makes the JUUL nicotine pods as well as traditional tobacco companies.

“Youth access to tobacco products primarily comes from their social access and their friends happen to be of age, but they are not,” said Jeff Boeyink, a lobbyist for the parent company of Phillip Morris. “Moving from 18 to 21 removes most of this access out of the high school area, which is what we are trying to target here.”

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But subcommittee member Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, was skeptical. “Whenever Big Tobacco, and now I guess it’s Big Vape” support legislation that would appear to reduce the use of their products “you really have to scratch your head,” he said.

Focusing on the age issue was “a facade or window dressing,” he said, when the issue that needs to be addressed is nicotine addiction.

“Kids aren’t going to pay any attention if this gets to the goal line,” said Bolkcom, who eventually signed off on the bill that cleared the Senate Appropriations subcommittee 3-0. “Who can be against raising the age? It’s not going to do a darn thing to reduce the use of these highly addictive products.”

According to the Truth Initiative, nearly 10 percent of Iowa high school students smoked at least one day a month in 2017, higher than the national average but trending downward according to some data.

The organization found about 9 percent of Iowa high school students used e-cigarettes at least one day a month in 2017, lower than the national average but appearing to trend upward according to other data.

Because it’s classified as an appropriations bill, SF 607 was not subject to a key legislative deadline last week for policy measures and is just now being considered.

If approved, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, but would not be applicable to anyone 18 or older before that date.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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