Students from Johnson County Middle School testified in favor of Senate Bill 218 in Frankfort. | Courtesy of LRC

A bill to establish an anonymous hotline for students to report concerns about vaping also may end up raising the legal age to buy electronic cigarettes in Kentucky to 21.

The hotline bill sailed through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday after a compelling presentation by students from Johnson County Middle School on the dangers and popularity of youth vaping. Changing the lawful age to purchase or receive e-cigarettes was mentioned in an amendment filed the next day.

Senate Bill 218 — sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard — calls for the Department of Education to create a tool, such as a toll-free hotline or electronic system, for reporting concerns about “the use, distribution, or possession of any alternative nicotine product, tobacco product, or vapor product on school property or during school-sponsored events.”

Sen. Stephen Meredith | Courtesy of LRC

Thursday, Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, filed an amendment to the hotline bill to increase the minimum age for purchasing or receiving e-cigarettes to 21, mimicking a bill of his that had been voted down earlier in the week by the Senate Agriculture Committee. That bill was broader, however, in that it would have made 21 the legal age to purchase all tobacco products, not just vapor products and alternative nicotine products.

Meredith’s failed Senate Bill 249 was mistakenly viewed as “anti-tobacco” when the goal was really to address youth usage of e-cigarettes, he explained at the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where he raised the idea of the amendment during discussion of Smith’s SB 218.

Seven states, including Virginia, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine, have raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The current legal age in Kentucky is 18.

JUUL Labs, which makes an e-cigarette that looks like a USB drive, issued a statement saying that it thinks 21 should be the legal age to purchase all tobacco products in Kentucky. It also noted that the company requires anyone who makes purchases from its website to be 21.

Eight groups, including the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a news release that they also support raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products to 21 and noted that Senate Bill 249 still has a chance to be resurrected.

Wednesday’s discussion about the hotline bill was led off by 13-year-old Emily Farler and a handful of fellow middle school students who expressed alarm to lawmakers about the pervasiveness of youth vaping and its potential health effects on young brains.

“Do you really want your child or grandchild to be exposed to these carcinogens?” one student asked legislators during the teens’ presentation.

The students told lawmakers how easy it can be to conceal e-cigarettes and how bullying or harrassment can result if peers who engage in vaping or “juuling” think you’re trying to get them in trouble or work against them. They also spoke about older kids selling e-cigarettes to younger ones at ballgames and elsewhere.

Along with creating an anonymous reporting tool, Senate Bill 218 would require the Department of Education to establish policies for the prompt investigation of reports to the hotline or reporting tool and for the accused youth’s parent or guardian to be notified about substantiated findings.

Students found to have been using, possessing or distributing alternative nicotine products, tobacco products or vapor products — or who self-report doing so — would be referred to smoking cessation services, such as those offered by local health departments or school districts.

Smith’s bill also calls for local school boards to be encouraged to provide awareness programs about the dangers of vaping and the signs of e-cigarette use by students. Teens testified that some youths who vape find themselves unable to go for long periods without needing to use again.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has noted that nicotine in e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes is addictive. “In addition to nicotine, the aerosol that users inhale and exhale from e-cigarettes can potentially expose both themselves and bystanders to other harmful substances, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deeply into the lung,” according to his December advisory to the public.

There have been multiple attempts this session to address vaping because of a rise in  e-cigarette usage by U.S. youths. The percentage of high school students reporting past 30-day use of e-cigarettes rose by more than 75 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration’s National Youth Tobacco Survey. Use among middle school-age children increased nearly 50 percent.

In Kentucky, several groups have been lobbying legislators to save House Bill 11, which is aimed at prohibiting the use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, on school campuses and at school activities. However, there have been amendments filed to, among other things, limit the restrictions to times when students are present.

Although that bill was approved by the House Health and Family Services Committee earlier this month, it has not been voted on by the full House.

Health advocates, led by the American Lung Association in Kentucky, gathered in Frankfort Thursday to urge legislators to rescue House Bill 11.

“We had a good turnout at our annual Advocacy Day,” said Shannon Baker, an advocacy director for the association, via email. “We do not plan to let this important student safety legislation die quietly. There’s still time and work to be done.”

This story has been updated with a comment from JUUL Labs and a reference to various groups that support raising the tobacco-purchasing age to 21 in Kentucky.