Severe restrictions proposed on vaping and smoking in Kansas — some mirroring changes made in the city of Newton in 2019 — met widespread opposition Thursday from advocacy groups, retailers and individuals divided on whether the bill goes too far or not far enough.
The sweeping legislation would conform to federal standards by raising the legal age for tobacco products to 21, which would protect $12 million in federal grant money. The legislation also contains a public indoor vaping ban and outlaws the sale of all vaping flavors except menthol. The legal age for vaping also would be 21.
License fees for retailers would increase from $25 to $100. Penalties for underage sales would stiffen from $200 to $500 for a first offense, and $750 or $1,000 for repeat violations. Every retailer would be subjected to two controlled buys per year.
The legal age for purchase of all tobacco and vaping products in Newton was raised to 21 on Jan. 1, the result of statute changes approved by the city commission after high school students approached the commission in the summer of 2019 asking for the change.
Students, along with the drug prevention group D-Fy and representatives of Newton Medical Center, asked the commission to establish the new purchase age. The commission approved the change — along with permit fees and controlled purchases by law enforcement for enforcement of the new sales limits — after multiple revisions to statute.
The proposed state legislation also bans vending machines or self-serving devices for cigarettes.
Opponents to the bill testified in a hearing before a House panel to express concerns that mostly relate to vaping restrictions. Retailers are concerned about lost sales, health organizations want the flavor ban to include menthol and consumers see flavored vaping as a means to kick smoking habits.
Kesha Brandt, who runs six vaping stores in Kansas, said a strawberry candy flavor called “Pinky” keeps her from returning to cigarettes.
She told lawmakers her life was upended seven years ago by watching her grandmother’s fight with lung cancer. Brandt, who had smoked for 12 years, tried patches, gum and prescriptions in a failed attempt to quit her habit.
Vaping, Brandt said, allowed her to defeat tobacco. She emptied her savings to open her first store in 2014 and said she now has helped thousands of Kansans “give up their death sentence.” Her stores employ 30 people.
“Vaping saves lives,” she said. “Please don’t take away any Kansan’s right to make a choice.”
Proponents of vaping restrictions point to the appeal of vaping products with teenagers, who can enjoy a nicotine high through sleek, fashionable and largely undetectable devices.
Mark Desetti, of the Kansas National Education Association, said the use of electronic cigarettes contributes to nicotine addiction and creates a new set of negative health consequences.
“School districts have been fighting the rise in vaping among students,” Desetti said. “It is much harder to control something that does not leave the odor and smoke traces of traditional tobacco products. We need all the help we can get in the battle to keep our students away from these harmful products.”
Eric McPherson, owner of Flatland Vapes in Shawnee and Leavenworth, said he believes the proposed legislation would result in the loss of a thousand jobs and $230 million in sales in Kansas.
Nobody, he said, wants children to have access to harmful products.
“Our target audience is adult smokers — those who want to quit a lifetime of harmful addiction to combustible tobacco,” McPherson said.
If passed, the legislation would take effect July 1. The Kansas Department of Revenue estimates the bill would decrease state revenue by $6.8 million in the first 12 months.
Bob Corkins, of the Liberty Alliance, railed against the bill as yet another intrusion by government. He likened the restrictions to a hypothetical ban on Cheetos just because they taste too good.
“The power we have given to the government is staggering, and we keep adding to its power all the time,” Corkins said.
Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, introduced the legislation and signaled a willingness to negotiate.
“This is our opportunity as a state to take the initiative to have some enforcement aspects nailed down for the state of Kansas,” Eplee said.