Nineteen of 22 vape shops in the county of 1 million people are within a half mile of a middle or high school, officials said. Those shops would be allowed to operate for 24 months after the zoning amendment went into effect but would then have to close or adapt their businesses.
Buying tobacco, including e-cigarettes, is already illegal in Maryland for those younger than 18; starting next month, the minimum age will increase to 21, with an exception for members of the military.
More than 450 cases of lung disease linked to vaping, including six deaths, have been reported across the country. On Monday, New York became the second state after Michigan to announce plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes, which are popular among underage users. Last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration intends to “clear the market” of flavored e-cigarettes.
Some officials have urged jurisdictions against going too far with restrictions on e-cigarettes, which many adults have turned to as a healthier alternative than regular cigarettes. “We should take this epidemic of casual e-cigarette use among children seriously, but we should not overreact,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
At a news conference attended by all nine members of the Montgomery County Council as well as County Executive Marc Elrich (D), officials described underage vaping as a public health epidemic. There have been 15 cases of vaping-related illnesses in Maryland. The lone victim from Montgomery was between 18 and 24 years old, county Health Officer Travis Gayles said, and experienced “significant respiratory distress” but stabilized after a week in the hospital.
Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large), co-lead sponsor of the two anti-vaping bills, said paramedics have been called to county schools at least three times in the past year to treat students who fell ill shortly after using vaping products. Vaping has become so common, officials said, that some students refer to school bathrooms as “vape rooms.”
Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2), the other co-lead sponsor of the bills, criticized what he said were deliberate efforts by e-cigarette companies to target underage users by packaging vaping equipment to resemble items such as USB flashdrives and advertising flavors such as piña colada or cotton candy.
Vape store owners said the legislation was aimed at the wrong targets.
Benjamin Lackey, 37, owner of Vape Social in Gaithersburg, said he goes out of his way to turn away customers under the age of 18. His store is within a half mile of a school, according to a county planning department map. “There’s no way we’d sell to anyone in high school or below, so I’m really not sure how this would help,” Lackey said.
Kellen Leeson, an inventory manager at Vapor WorldWide in Shady Grove, agreed. “If I’m a 16-year-old, I’m going to hop onto Amazon or eBay and I’m going to order it right to my house,” he said.
Kelly Citrin, general manager at Vapor WorldWide, protested what she said was the unfair targeting of vape shops. If selling e-cigarettes is banned near schools, she said, then selling cigarettes should be as well.
Both bills will be introduced on Sept. 17. A public hearing is scheduled for November.