St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page announced a proposal on Monday to raise the age to 21 from eighteen. And on Tuesday, he got an earful (politely) from vape shop owners.
Page's proposal, which follows the so-called Tobacco 21 legislation spreading across the country, includes the sale of e-cigarettes. Supporters see vaping as a "gateway" to smoking real, live cigarettes, especially when it comes to teens.
But the vape industry has increasingly tried to position itself as the tobacco alternative — a way to quit smoking and save lives.
"I feel bad here, because I hate cigarettes," John Huck, who owns vape shops in St. Louis and Jefferson counties, told council members during a meeting of its health committee. "I've lost five family members because of cigarettes, and we're being grouped like cigarettes."
Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the county Department of Health, says vaping isn't proven to stop smoking and it's dangerous in its own right. He says all vaping products contain nicotine (a statement contested by vape shop owners) and aren't as safe as a nicotine patch, which releases small doses through the skin and doesn't require the user to inhale.
He claims enforcing the ordinance wouldn't be an extra burden, because the county already polices retail smoke shops to curb underage sales. More than 190 cities across the country, including Columbia and parts of the Kansas City metro area, have passed legislation increasing the age for tobacco and e-cigarettes.
"Tightening these restrictions is the right thing to do at the right time," Khan told council members.
Arguments from the vape community tend to fall into two main categories — health and freedom. Shop owners, such as Huck, relay anecdotes of miraculous-sounding recoveries of life-long smokers who, they claim, enter their shops toting oxygen tanks and return after a few months of vaping (and not smoking) with a renewed vigor and no tanks.
The freedom argument frequently invokes the idea of an eighteen-year-old soldier — old enough to die for the country but barred by T21 legislation from enjoying a smoke or vape to calm his nerves.
James Chiodini, a 21-year-old vape industry employee and ex-soldier, is the nexus of both arguments. He says he smoked two and a half packs per day while in the Missouri National Guard, except for the weeks when superiors caught him sneaking the contraband cigarettes onto base.
A near-fatal heart condition forced Chiodini out of the military after about a year, he says. He eventually started vaping to quit smoking, and his heart condition cleared up, he says.
"I can run miles and miles again," he says. "I can go to the gym and weight lift."
If vaping had been illegal for people younger than 21, he would've been denied that option, he says.
"What about people like me?" he asked the council.
The ordinance has wide support in the St. Louis medical community, with endorsements from institutions that include SSM Health, BJC Healthcare and St. Louis Mercy. St. Louis city Mayor Francis Slay posted on Twitter he'd "like the city to follow suit" if the county ordinance passes.
Proponents say they hope to lower the number of smoking teens so they never have the health problems experience by people like Chiodini. A sixteen-year-old who might now be able to get a pack from an eighteen-year-old classmate would have a harder time getting them from someone 21 or older, making it less likely they'll pick up the habit, they believe.
If T21 passes in the county, I would like the city to follow suit. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) August 24, 2016
"Unfortunately in the state of Missouri we struggle with our tobacco policies," Karen Englert, a St. Louis-based government relations director for the American Heart Association, told the council. "This gives us a chance to get ahead of the curve. It really does."
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