LINCOLN — Eighteen-year-olds who smoke or vape in Nebraska have until midnight New Year’s Eve to stock up on supplies.
Starting Wednesday, a new state law will push the legal age for buying and using cigarettes and vaping products to 19.
But that new legal age will be short-lived. A federal law boosted the age to 21, with enforcement beginning this summer. That age matches the legal age for buying alcohol. Nineteen states already have set the smoking age at 21.
The federal change was tucked into a major defense spending bill signed by President Donald Trump just before Christmas. Enforcement of that law will begin 90 days after federal regulations are updated, a process that can take up to six months.
In the meantime, one Nebraska lawmaker plans a renewed push to ban vaping indoors and another will seek to apply state tobacco taxes to vaping products.
State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island originally proposed to add vapes to the existing statewide smoking ban in Legislative Bill 149, the same bill that raised the legal age. But he agreed to drop the indoor vaping provision to smooth the way for the age increase.
“My big thing last year was to get it out of the hands of our children,” he said. “We’re going to have a whole generation of kids addicted to nicotine.”
Since the legislative session ended, more than 2,500 people nationwide have been hospitalized with lung diseases linked to vaping products. Fifty-four people in 27 states have died, including one in Nebraska.
National studies have revealed that roughly one in four high school students report using vaping products, up from about one in 10 three years ago.
And Nebraska communities have taken action. The Omaha City Council passed a tax on vaping products, while Lincoln and Grand Island have banned vaping along with smoking in public places and workplaces.
Quick said he plans to introduce legislation in the coming legislative session that would ban indoor vaping statewide, like the indoor smoking ban. He is optimistic about its chances this year.
But Sarah Linden, who runs Generation V and is president of the Nebraska Vape Vendors Association, said she will fight efforts to ban vaping indoors. She said there is no evidence that secondhand vapor is harmful, as opposed to secondhand smoke.
She said such laws make vaping seem dangerous and discourage people from taking up electronic cigarettes and other vaping products to stop smoking tobacco. She argued that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.
“Smoking kills people and we know that,” Linden said. “There’s people that are probably going to die from smoking that could have switched.”
Quick disputed the idea that secondhand vaping is not dangerous. He said some studies do indicate concerns and argued that people should not have to be exposed to vapor when they go out to a restaurant or a movie theater.
“We should have as much right as the person vaping,” he said.
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Quick and Linden found common ground on the law increasing the vaping age to 19, however. Linden said it was a reasonable step to keep vaping products away from high school-age youths, while allowing adults to make their own choices.
She also said that she could support higher penalties for selling vaping products to minors and that she favors limits on the amount of nicotine in vapes, which would affect the heavily marketed and high-nicotine Juuls. Teens like the high-nicotine products for the buzz they produce, she said.
But Linden opposes any proposal that would increase taxes on vapes. She argued that the state does not charge such taxes on nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine gums and patches, which are used to help people stop smoking.
Currently, consumers pay sales taxes on vaping products but not the tax charged on tobacco products.
That could change under LB 710, proposed by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha in the last legislative session. The bill remains in the Revenue Committee and will carry over to the new legislative session. Among other things, the measure would subject vaping products to a tax equal to 65% of the selling price.
Cavanaugh said she plans to pursue a vaping tax in 2020. She said vaping is different from nicotine gums and patches.
“Vaping products are not smoking cessation products,” she said. “They are addictive and cause serious health hazards.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect age for the Nebraska vaping law.