STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — About a decade after vape pens hit the shelves, anti-smoking advocates concerned about the risks those products pose believe they have the support needed to advance legislation that would regulate them more like cigarettes.

Teens participating in the anti-smoking Kick Butts Day on Tuesday highlighted the problem of vaping in schools, and health lobbyists are optimistic about the chances of a bill (H 4109) currently before the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Anti-tobacco activists have put their support behind legislation that would raise the age of purchasing tobacco and electronic cigarettes to 21 and ban workplace vaping the way lawmakers banned workplace smoking 14 years ago.

"We've got great support from the House and the Senate," said Marc Hymovitz, who handles Bay State government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. He said, "We are encouraged and hopeful that there will be a vote in both the House and Senate before the end of formal sessions."

The Senate last session passed legislation to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21; the legislation has so far failed to gain momentum in the House.

Sarah Ryan, a 17-year-old junior, said she remembers when she first saw e-cigarette products among the other tobacco wares in a store across the street from Holbrook Middle-High School.

"It's the convenience store that we all hang out at after school to get candy and chips, and they sell flavored tobacco," said Ryan, who is the recipient of the Kick Butts Day Statewide Youth Leadership Award.

Vaping is a technology that enables people to inhale vapors from electronically heated liquids that are usually flavored and often contain nicotine or other chemicals, and Ryan said she knows that children as young as fifth and sixth grade have started using them. While reams of medical studies have conclusively linked smoking and chewing tobacco to cancer and other ailments, Ryan must make more nuanced pitches to ward off her peers from vape pens.

"I think that's what makes this so dangerous, because we really can't see the long-term effects. We can't say, 'Fifty years of using e-cigarettes is going to do this to your lungs,'" Ryan told the News Service. "We can say that we know that nicotine increases your susceptibility to addiction; we know that it interferes with your brain development; we know that the surgeon general says that it's dangerous for any young person to be exposed to nicotine, but we can't say, 'E-cigarettes are going to give you cancer' because it's just too early for us to know."

In her bid to prevent other young people from taking up vaping, Ryan tells them the tobacco companies want them to start using e-cigarettes.

"We try to talk about the tobacco industry is targeting you," Ryan said. She said, "They really try to prey on you and use you to meet their ends."

In the United States, 18-year-olds are considered of age to vote, pay taxes and serve in the military, noted Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Stores and Energy Marketers Association.

While local ordinances have already created a "patchwork" of varying tobacco sales regulations in Massachusetts, the bill backed by the anti-smoking groups would drive more shoppers out-of-state, Shaer contended.

"Stores end up losing sales," Shaer told the News Service.

A call to Altria Client Services, a lobbying arm for tobacco companies, was not returned Wednesday. While the old guard tobacco industry has moved into the world of electronic cigarettes and vape juice, new companies have also cropped up.

On Tuesday the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to companies that "misleadingly labeled or advertised nicotine-containing e-liquids as kid friendly food products such as juice boxes, candies, and cookies.

"E-liquids are dangerous for children, and in fact, young children exposed to nicotine in e-liquids can experience severe harms such as death, seizure, and coma," the federal agencies said, highlighting vape juices marketed to look and taste like juice boxes, Sour Patch Kids and whipped cream.

Fruit and candy flavors can appeal to adults as well and some have said e-cigarettes helped ween them off tobacco cigarettes. The makers of Smax E-Liquid wrote to its customers recently warning of an upcoming "flavor ban" from the federal government. The company said, "Lets avoid the flavor ban from happening for tomorrow because vaping would not be as effective if you only had menthol and tobacco flavors to choose from!"

E-cigarettes are much more prevalent among high school youths than adults in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Public Health, which reported 44.8 percent of high school youth had ever used e-cigs in 2015 compared to 13.5 percent of adults.

A couple months ago a group vaping in a Waltham High School bathroom set off a fire alarm, said Havo Akobirshoeva, a 17-year-old junior at the school who has also noticed the saccharine smell of vaping clouds on the school bus.

Akobirshoeva and others have met with city officials in Waltham, where she said the purchasing age is 21 but enforcement is lax.

"One of my friends stepped into this vape shop and they didn't even ask her for her ID," Akobirshoeva told the News Service.

Lawmakers know more about vaping this session than they did in prior years, according to Hymovitz, who said the awareness has been driven by the explosion of e-cigarette use in schools.

"It is a new product and unfortunately the industry got out before the knowledge of the products," Hymovitz told the News Service.

--Andy Metzger, State House News Service

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