Lawmakers push e-cigarette regulation as business grows

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The electronic cigarette business is booming, taking in $2 billion a year according to industry officials. Anyone can buy them – including your children.

As more and more e-cigarette retailers crop up, Rhode Island lawmakers have joined a push that also includes support from the Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale of the product to minors. Now, Eyewitness News has learned the good-intentioned legislation might be sending a vital new stream of revenue up in smoke before it has a chance to benefit Rhode Island.

“I was a full-fledged smoker, pack and a half, two packs a day, easily,” said Darin Tripoli.

Two and a half years ago, lighting up was sending Tripoli’s health into a downward spiral. He knew he had to kick the habit. He tried the patches, gum, cold turkey – but nothing worked. After multiple failed attempts, success came in the form of an e-cigarette, a battery-operated product designed to deliver nicotine and turn liquid into an aerosol that’s inhaled by the user.

“You know right away that holy cow, there’s something out there that’s an alternative to this mess,” he said.

Now, smoke-free, Tripoli co-owns Sunshine Vape, an e-cigarette or “vaping” shop in Warwick.

“It doesn’t heat up any hotter than your body temperature, so it’s not combusting anything,” he explained to Eyewitness News. “It’s essentially vaping – it’s taking a liquid and turning it into a vapor.”

At Sunshine Vape, e-cigarettes come in a number of different colors and shapes and the e-juice liquid comes in a variety of flavors ranging from Piña Colada to Mountain Dude.

Tripoli says he can understand how the colors and flavors might seem appealing to children. Although, he refuses to sell any of this products to minors even though in Rhode Island, and federally,

Interactive: The Dangers and Regulations of E-Cigarettes
Interactive: The Dangers and Regulations of E-Cigarettes

there is no law requiring him to.

“It will ruin it for the entire industry if somebody’s caught willingly giving kids e-cigarettes,” he said. “They’re not for kids, nothing about it is for kids.”

Despite his refusal to sell the unregulated product to minors, the popularity of e-cigarettes is still growing among teens throughout the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012.

The Food and Drug Administration advises on its website that e-cigarettes need more study and that consumers don’t yet know the potential health risks associated with the product. Yet, even without further study, the agency is moving forward with a plan to regulate e-cigarette products and force manufacturers to restrict the sale to minors. Other regulations would include placing health warning labels on products and disclosure of the ingredients. The agency is currently in the middle of a 75-day public comment period regarding the changes, though there’s no timeline as to when the regulations would go into place.

On a local level, Rhode Island Representative Helio Melo introduced in January 2014 his own legislation banning the sale of e-cigarettes to children.

“We know that it can become habit forming – there is nicotine involved in some of these products,” Melo said. “Therefore, we just need to protect our children.”

Melo’s bill would also require an adult to sign for any online e-cigarette purchases, adding an additional fee passed along to the consumer.

The regulation of e-cigarettes also found its way into Governor Lincoln Chafee’s state budget for fiscal year 2015. The legislation calls for an 80 percent excise tax on the wholesale price of all e-cigarette products, far more than the $3.50-plus-7-percent sales tax applied to traditional cigarettes.

For Tripoli, he said both pieces of legislation would bring costly changes the industry can’t afford.

“They want us to create jobs and start-up businesses, well, let us do that.”

Tripoli told Eyewitness News he fears excessive taxes might lead people right back to the deadly habit they’re trying to kick.

“They’re going to go back to traditional cigarettes, that’s why I call it death regulations,” he said. “The blood’s on their hands.”

Currently, Rep. Melo’s bill banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors has been tabled for further study. The Rhode Island General Assembly will vote on Governor Chafee’s budget, including the 90 percent tax on e-cigarettes, later this year.

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