South Carolina Bill Aims to Address Youth Vaping Crisis

Dozens of non-authorized e-cigarettes are appropriated from students weekly in Oconee County, amounting to potentially thousands over the past three years, as estimated by school security director Evie Hughes.

“I don’t think you can step into a restroom in a middle or high school without encountering a vape,” Hughes informed the SC Daily Gazette. “It has become a widespread issue among adolescents.”

An initiative with bipartisan support was forwarded to the Senate floor on Thursday aiming to reduce the accessibility of vapes to children, who might be inhaling more than just nicotine.

The fruity- or candy-flavored e-cigarettes that are overwhelmingly popular among middle and high school students are already deemed unlawful. Only e-cigarettes with tobacco or menthol flavors are authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, marketed mainly as aids for smoking cessation among adults.

The issue is that the vibrant, disposable vapes manufactured in China (often disguised as other items) have been infiltrating the United States since just before Chinese authorities banned the flavors there in 2022.

U.S. officials are struggling to keep up. In December, the FDA declared its first confiscation of illegal e-cigarette shipments. The 1.4 million products impounded at the Los Angeles airport – all originating from China – were valued at $18 million, according to the report.

South Carolina, like several other states, is taking independent action to curtail the increasing influx of these products to young individuals across their territories.

“This is primarily about the well-being of our children and their prospects,” stated Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla.

A bill introduced by Alexander, which received an extraordinary unanimous vote by all 17 senators on the Medical Affairs Committee, would establish a list of permissible vapes for retail in South Carolina. Products not listed on the registry, overseen by the attorney general’s office, could be confiscated from wholesalers and retailers.

Producers and distributors of vapes absent from the approved catalogue must remove them from stores statewide or risk daily penalties of $1,000 per product.

The appealingly scented, brightly colored vapes that senators aim to eliminate from shelves feature flavors like wild cherry, bubblegum, and cotton candy. The packaging can resemble makeup brushes, highlighters, and flash drives, making them easily concealable in a student’s bag or pockets, noted Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

“It’s quite apparent from the variety of colors and designs that these are targeted at minors,” highlighted Hutto, one of the 15 bill co-sponsors.

To illustrate the issue, Alexander exhibited numerous e-cigarettes confiscated from students in Oconee County over recent weeks.

Hughes mentioned that between 30 to 50 vapes are confiscated from students across the district’s 18 schools on a weekly basis.

In South Carolina, 47% of high school students acknowledged vaping in 2020, based on the most recent data from the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. This percentage could now be even higher.

On a national scale, there has been an astounding 2,600% surge since 2019 in high school students preferring disposables for vaping, with fruity flavors as the top choice, followed by candy flavors, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Since 2019, federal legislation has set 21 as the legal age for purchasing tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. However, state regulations still allow sales to individuals aged 18 and above. According to the state’s 2020 data, 12% of high school students obtaining e-cigarettes purchased them directly from a store.

Similar to conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Moreover, disposable vapes generally contain high nicotine levels. The addictive substance can be particularly detrimental to young individuals whose cognitive functions are still developing, impacting their attention span, mood regulation, impulse control, and learning abilities, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vapor emitted is also associated with lung impairments and seizures, according to the FDA.

And this entails the situation with regulated vapes.

Regarding illegal, unregulated vapes originating from China, senators express concerns about the unknown contents.

Some of these products may contain THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. There are apprehensions that many could be laced with extremely hazardous substances like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine, also making its way from China. Instances of fentanyl-laced vapes have already surfaced in various other states.

According to South Carolina’s proposed bill, the registry must be established by September 1.

Currently, four states – Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin – have implemented similar registries. Virginia is anticipated to become the fifth following the approval of a bill by its Legislature recently.

Alexander’s bill has garnered support not only from legislators of diverse political affiliations but also from educators and law enforcement personnel.

It would allocate enforcement responsibilities to the State Law Enforcement Division, the attorney general’s office, and the Department of Revenue.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott emphasized the manpower constraints his deputies face with more pressing matters like homicides, break-ins, and other severe offenses. Inspecting products on store shelves isn’t a viable priority for them, he revealed.

“We could easily spend our entire time checking stores,” Lott pointed out.

The establishment of a registry is projected to streamline the crackdown on sales, as highlighted by Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann, a proponent of the bill who spoke at a recent subcommittee gathering.

“Effective enforcement is crucial,” reiterated Rickenmann, referencing feedback from parents and teachers.

In Oconee County, students caught with vapes are required to undergo an eight-week program focusing on substance abuse and associated risks.

Despite these stringent measures, rather than preventing students, the penalties seem to encourage them to become more discreet about concealing their vapes, according to Hughes.

“It feels like an ongoing battle, and presently, we seem to be on the losing end,” expressed Hughes.

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