Lawmakers are moving ahead with a bipartisan proposal to limit the sale of vaping and other tobacco products to people 21 and older, holding a public hearing Wednesday on a measure designed to address what advocates called a public health crisis facing young people.
Consideration of the bill comes amid a vaping illness outbreak in Wisconsin and nationwide that has sickened nearly 1,900 people and killed 37 since March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A majority of those sickened said they vaped products containing THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana.
Proponents for setting the minimum age for purchasing vaping products in Wisconsin at 21 — who also support raising the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 — said it would help curb use among young people. Electronic cigarette use by high school students has skyrocketed despite concerns about damage the chemicals in the devices cause to the heart and lungs.
“We have a crisis of youth tobacco use both in Wisconsin and nationwide,” said Dr. Michael Fiore, head of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Prevention. He was one of many doctors and other medical professionals who testified in support of the measure.
E-cigarette use increased by 154% between 2014 and 2018, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. As of last year, one out of every five students used them, the department said.
Research shows that 95% of people become addicted by age 21, so anything that can be done to reduce use among young people will save lives, Fiore said. Based on data from other states with a 21-year-old age limit, use would reduce in Wisconsin by about 12%, he said.
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Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar bills raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco, nicotine and vaping products to 21.
Republican Rep. John Nygren, a member of the committee that considered the bill, questioned whether it was appropriate to set the minimum age as high as 21, given that people can join the military and vote at age 18.
Fiore said that while setting the age at 21 may not be perfect, it “will save lives in Wisconsin and help protect kids.”
Gregg Wieczorek, the principal of Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, testified that he thought tobacco use among young people was under control before vaping became popular in recent years. It’s so pervasive, Wieczorek said, that he’s seen student athletes lose eligibility to play their sport because they’ve been caught vaping so often.
“Feeding their addiction for nicotine was more important than the passion for their sport,” he said.
The proposal is supported by public health and school groups including the American Heart Association, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Public Health Association.
The Cigar Association of America and tobacco manufacturer Swisher International registered in opposition. E-cigarette manufacturing giant Juul Labs supports raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products, including vaping products, to 21.
The bill would have to pass the state Senate and Assembly and be signed by Gov. Tony Evers before becoming law. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said last month that he wouldn’t rule out the proposal, but the soonest the Senate could take it up is January. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Evers did not return messages seeking comment.