- - Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Teen smoking has been a hot topic in Washington and across the country lately. As of July, 17 states have passed new laws increasing the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, with similar legislation currently being promoted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In addition, there have been numerous conversations about the impact e-cigarettes are having on teen smoking rates, especially given the latest data shows teen smoking is on the rise after the rate was in decline for decades.

It is vital that our elected officials promote commonsense solutions to effectively reverse this trend. However, policymakers must also work to prevent an overreaching government from proposing quick fixes that could cause more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking the latter approach to try to address the problem.

Originally proposed under former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, the FDA rolled out a convoluted e-cigarette policy that would limit the retail locations that sell certain flavored e-cigarette products to tobacco, vape, and online stores. The logic behind these guidelines was driven by the notion that tobacco and vape stores ban minors from entering their stores, so fewer teens would have access to these products.

Unfortunately, according to the best data we have available on the topic, more teens get e-cigarettes from vape and tobacco stores than the other locations that would be banned from selling these products. In addition, nearly a third of teens who purchased their own e-cigarette bought them online, more than any other type of retail store. Yet this FDA policy, when implemented, would continue to allow these products to be sold online.

In short, this policy would not be effective at preventing teens from smoking, and could actually make it more likely that teens acquire these products as teens would be pushed to stores that are failing at a higher rate to enforce the current laws prohibiting selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Besides the FDA policy having counterproductive results, it is clearly a distortion of the free market that unfairly favors some businesses while punishing the retail locations that have a better record of enforcing the age restriction on e-cigarettes and other vape products.

Republican members of the House recently signed a letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless that calls out the FDA for this nonsensical approach. The letter is signed by 46 Republicans, including committee ranking members and other influential Republicans like North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Republican lawmakers are not only pointing out how the federal government is taking the wrong approach on this issue, but they are also presenting their own solutions to tackle teen smoking.

In April, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act, which would help curb teens’ ability to get e-cigarettes online by requiring age verification at the point of delivery of the products. The House also took action and introduced the companion legislation to the Senate bill.

The House version was introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, North Dakota Republican (at large). And they are joined by a bipartisan group of representatives, including Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, where this bill will first be considered. Hopefully, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and members of the committee like Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican, will consider supporting the Senate version of this legislation as well.

We are counting on Republicans to chew gum and walk at the same time. They need to fight back against government overreach, like the policies coming out of the FDA, while promoting legislative solutions that would effectively prevent teens from being able to acquire e-cigarettes.

As we head into an election year, where key swing states that President Trump must win are up for grabs, this issue is something that is clearly important to voters. Republicans, from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to local officials, must balance conservative, small government values with the public health concerns of the next generation.

• State Sen. Todd Johnson, a Republican, serves as a member of the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges.

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