LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature took a step Tuesday toward raising the age for legally smoking cigarettes or vaping.

Lawmakers gave first-round approval to Legislative Bill 149, which would raise the age to 19 for buying and using tobacco products and “electronic nicotine delivery systems.”

State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island said he introduced the measure in hopes of getting Juuls and other types of electronic cigarettes out of the hands of high school students.

“This is an issue we need to address for the health and safety of our children,” he said. “If we don’t address it now, there will be a whole generation addicted to nicotine.”

Vaping 'rampant' among teens; parents seek answers from schools and police

Electronic cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine, flavorings and other additives to the user through an inhaled vapor. One of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes is Juul, a product that resembles a computer flash drive.

Quick said the issue was brought to him by Grand Island school officials, who were concerned about a steep rise in the number of students using Juuls. The increase mirrors national trends.

A recent advisory from the U.S. surgeon general said e-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students from 2017 to last year. Currently, an estimated 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students use e-cigarettes.

The trend raises health concerns because most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the addictive drug in tobacco. A typical Juul pod, or cartridge, has about as much nicotine as a pack of regular cigarettes. According to the surgeon general’s advisory, nicotine can harm the developing teenage brain, affecting memory, learning and attention, as well as increasing the risk of addiction to other substances.

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Quick’s original proposal called for raising the legal age to 21, up from the current age of 18. The bill would have affected only e-cigarette products.

The General Affairs Committee amendment set the age at 19 and expanded the bill to include regular cigarettes and other tobacco products. It also would require e-cigarette sellers to be licensed, just as tobacco vendors are licensed.

An effort to change the amendment and set 21 as the legal age fell short.

Opponents argued that the higher age represented too much government regulation, while a one-year bump in the legal age was better targeted at the problem of vaping among high school students. Others said enforcement could be difficult.

“We’ve passed laws like this before, but youth find a way around it,” said Sen. John Lowe of Kearney.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed an amendment to eliminate language in the committee amendment that would make e-cigarettes subject to the state’s smoking ban. Wayne said there is not enough research showing secondhand dangers from vaping, as there was with smoking. Quick ended up agreeing to the change to win support for the bill.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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