Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley introduced a proposal Wednesday to restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, reflecting increased concern over the spike in vaping-related illnesses and deaths.
But unlike other cities that are focusing mainly on youth-friendly flavored products, Philadelphia’s proposal would lean on retailers, forbidding them to let children and teens in the door if the retailer wants to sell the high-nicotine and flavored e-cigarettes that dominate the market.
“The FDA should’ve regulated e-cigarettes years ago, but they haven’t done anything,” said Kenney during a news conference Wednesday. “They don’t even know what ingredients are in these products. Because the FDA hasn’t done anything, cities and states across the country are stepping in to protect young people.”
The proposed bill would apply to the sale of all e-cigarette devices and pods that deliver more nicotine than the levels currently found in similar products approved in the European Union — 20 milligrams of nicotine per millimeter of liquid, compared with 59 milligrams found in Juuls sold in the United States. (Juul currently sells pods that adhere to the 20-milligram rule in EU countries.)
The bill would also apply to products that use added flavorings, including mint and menthol. The measure would affect small businesses and major retailers like 7-Eleven and Wawa, which both carry Juuls in Philadelphia.
Stores that wish to allow children and teens in the door must limit their e-cigarette sales to devices and pods that have lower nicotine levels and no flavors.
The bill is cosponsored by City Council members William K. Greenlee and Cindy Bass. It will be introduced to council Thursday. The next step will be for Council President Darrell L. Clarke to refer the bill to a committee for review, which includes a hearing with public testimony. The committee will then vote it back to City Council members for a second reading and final passage. If passed it will go into effect immediately, but it is hard to say how long the process will take.
City officials hope the measure will decrease the cases of vaping-related illnesses and deaths, which State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine referred to as a “public health emergency” earlier this month as Pennsylvania confirmed its first death related to vaping. So far, the state has 25 confirmed cases of vaping-related lung illnesses and another 25 probable cases. The Public Health Department is investigating 56 more.
As of Oct. 8, there weare 1,299 cases of lung illness associated with vaping and 26 deaths across the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 70% of the patients are male, and 80% of them are under age 35.
No single product or ingredient has been implicated in all the cases, though many involve vaping cannabis products. This fact has spurred a backlash by those who see e-cigarettes as a useful way to quit smoking, and argue that vaping restrictions will boost use of traditional cigarettes, whose health dangers are abundantly documented.
But Farley noted that many children are going straight to e-cigarettes.
“More than 25% of 12th graders are now vaping,” said Farley. “These teens are not smokers. They’re getting addicted to an entirely new product. No one knows what’s going to happen to these children’s lungs if they use these products for years or decades. We don’t want any more young people clinging to life on a ventilator."
Philadelphia joins a handful of cities and states that are trying to regulate e-cigarette use by teens. But many of the initiatives have been blocked by judges or stalled by industry lobbying.
California tried to crack down on sales in May but shelved the legislation after it was watered down with exemptions, causing public health groups to withdraw their support. In June, San Francisco became the first city to ban non-Food and Drug Administration approved e-cigarette sales, but Juul, which is headquartered at Pier 70, is seeking to overturn the ordinance through a ballot measure that will go before voters next month. (If not overturned, the ban will go into effect next year.)
More recently, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney proposed a ban on all vaping products last month, while Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a new e-cigarette task force to take a closer look at regulations. Michigan also introduced a ban on flavored e-cigarette sales, but a judge suspended it this week, saying that it forced adults to return to smoking more harmful products and also hurt vaping businesses. Massachusetts issued a four-month ban, which is being challenged in court. The Trump administration has said that it would increase regulations at the federal level.
When asked if officials expect resistance from stores and vaping companies, Farley said that the city will not back down.
“If companies want to take us to court, they can take us to court,” he said. “We feel that we have to act. We think this is the right thing to do to protect our children.”