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Michigan Lawmakers Disagree On Regulating Minors Use of E-Cigarettes

vaping products
Cheyna Roth
A collection of vape pens and accessories confiscated by Belding school officials.

Schools across the state say Michigan lawmakers need to regulate e-cigarettes and help keep them out of the hands of minors. But there’s a dispute over how to do that.

It’s almost lunchtime at Belding High School east of Grand Rapids. You don’t even have to check the clock to tell. You can smell it. Fried chicken sandwiches, pizza, curly fries: the salivating scents linger in the halls until you get to the bathroom. That smells like something else.

"I mean we’re – it’s 10:00, we’re in the middle of class and it smells like fruit in that bathroom," said principal Michael Ostrander.

That fruity smell comes from e-cigarettes. Those are devices that people use to inhale a converted vapor - typically liquid nicotine. Sometimes with fruity scents.

Michael Ostrander
Credit Cheyna Roth / MPRN
Belding High School principal Michael Ostrander. He says vaping has become a serious problem here, and in high schools across the state.

Ostrander said vaping has become a serious problem here, and in high schools across the state. He said  staff confiscates vaping tools almost every week – sometimes a dozen in a month. It’s even the new currency in schools – kids trade vaping tools for other things like help on homework.

"We’ve reached a point where I believe it’s an epidemic and we’ve waited too long," said Ostrander. 

Health advocates agree. Andrew Schepers is with the American Cancer Society. He said the products need to be regulated and treated like tobacco – like they are on the federal level. Schepers said that would effectively prevent minors from using – and protect the public.

"We would rather fall on the side of define them as a tobacco product," said Schepers. "So that we are trying to provide some protection for the public than just trying to kind of piece-meal something together."

But so far that approach has failed to gain traction in Lansing.

So now, lawmakers have introduced bills to ban the use and possession of vaping tools by minors. 

Republican Senator Rick Outman is a bill sponsor.

"I’m just trying to get this out of the hands of kids," said Sen. Outman. "That’s as simple as it gets. This is a simple bill that doesn’t preclude anything else."

Belding High School
Credit Cheyna Roth / MPRN
Belding High School, east of Grand Rapids

Five years ago, the state Legislature sent a similar bill to then-Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder vetoed it because he agreed with health advocates.

Democratic Senator Jeremy Moss said he’d like to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco. But he said there just isn’t the political will to do that -- in part because the result would be higher taxes.

"Let’s have that conversation," said Sen. Moss. "I was ready to tackle it last session, it didn’t move. I’m ready to tackle it this session, let’s see if we can get some movement. But I can’t say, you know that is going to hold up this urgent work right now of making sure minors don’t have these vape products."

Back at Belding High School, 14-year-old 9th grader Mitchell Lake says he’s sick of that fruity vaping smell.

"You can’t even go to the bathroom hardly," said Lake.

Lake said kids are constantly vaping during school. That’s despite school policies banning it.

"I don’t really think it’s peer pressure here," said Lake."I think it’s just trying to fit in with groups. Like there’s groups of people that do it, like say you just want to fit in, then you start doing it."

Meanwhile, teachers and school officials are worried about the potential health implications of vaping -- and not just from liquid nicotine.

Principal Ostrander said he’s heard kids are trying to vape other things as well.

"And so now you’re inhaling that in a way that your body’s not supposed to do that," said Ostrander. "That’s scary. That freaks me out."

But it appears school officials could have to continue to wait for a resolution.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has come out against the bills making their way through the Legislature. But a spokesperson says the governor wants to find a – quote – “meaningful solution” to keep minors from vaping.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County.
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