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SALT LAKE CITY — If it calls itself a vape shop, it’s a vape shop.
What may seem a truism is not yet reflected in Utah code, a gap one lawmaker says has allowed stores selling e-cigarettes to dodge scrutiny from regulators.
Utah cities license tobacco specialty shops and health departments monitor them for compliance. Yet the stores only meet the definition of a specialty shop if they draw a little more than a third of sales from tobacco, dedicate 20% of their displays to it, or have a self-serve option.
So several retailers skirt the rules by printing receipts that list a vape product at a few dollars, followed by another charge for accessories that is several times higher, according to Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee.
She’s now proposing a bill that would clarify the law. If a business’s name goes to show it is a tobacco retailer, the measure would wrangle it into the category now subject to a health department permitting process and continuous checks.
The bill advanced Wednesday in a unanimous vote from the panel.
Selling flavors like bubble gum and green apple, vape shops by any other name may smell as sweet, yet the tweak is one way that lawmakers could strengthen enforcement of existing rules, Lisonbee said.
Her bill would also allow regulators to revoke a retail license after just one strike.
It would permit them to pull a license the first time a shop is found selling vape products to an underage customer. Previously, revocation required multiple violations.
“This is a free country. If you want to vape, we’re not going to restrict your access. But if you’re a minor, we have laws. We should enforce the laws,” Lisonbee said. “You need to ID every customer.”
Lisonbee is among several Utah lawmakers who are seeking to snuff out youth vaping as health officials have reported rising rates of a largely unexplained lung illness, mostly among those who use the devices to inhale the marijuana compound THC. At least one case resulted in a recent death in the Beehive State, according to the Utah Department of Health.
Marc Watterson, with the American Heart Association, said the existing gap has permitted the retailers to set up closer to homes, schools and parks than the 1,000-foot buffer the law allows for standard tobacco merchants.
Juan Bravo, president of the Utah Vapor Business Association, said his group wants to see the state get tougher on those who sell the products to minors and supports requiring shops to verify a person’s ID using a scanner.
“A lot of us are parents. We don’t want our kids getting their hands on the product, either. It’s an adult product for adult smokers,” he said in a Wednesday interview.
But he opposes the possible legislative fix based on a shop’s title, he said. Most of the business are responsible, he said, and crackdown efforts should focus on youth sales. Even those with a general license, which he said allows less than 35% of sales to come from tobacco, still are subject to scrutiny from cities and local health departments, he said.
E-cigarettes at schools
Also at the state Capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers debated a bill that to battle e-cigarettes in Utah schools, requiring a school district to create policies for confiscating e-cigarettes and handing them over to police.
“Honestly, we don’t even know the extent of the harm that vaping can do,” the proposal’s sponsor, Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, told lawmakers on the Judiciary Interim Committee.
The bill also seeks to involve students in a substance-abuse prevention program earlier on, teaching fourth and fifth graders how to say no, Pulsipher said. If it passes, it would equip schools with $4,000 to encourage positive behaviors, potentially through clubs or volunteer opportunities.
Proponents said the bill gives schools more direction and tools to tackle a rising problem. Others voiced concerns it doesn’t go far enough in tackling reasons young people vape, like wanting to belong or reducing their anxiety.
Rep Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said he had concerns the proposal might leave school districts vulnerable to legal claims of unlawful seizure.
Ben Horsley, with the Granite School District, said devices are not allowed on school grounds, but an 8-year-old recently brought a vaping device to a Granite campus. He said schools are ill-equipped to handle the problem without greater accountability on parents and retailers.
“I feel like we’re bringing a BB gun into a frontline battle,” Horsley said.
The education panel is set to continue the discussion next month.