Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso. (Kyle Telechan/Post Tribune)
Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso. (Kyle Telechan/Post Tribune)
Lawmakers will likely take another look at taxing vaping liquids when they return to Indianapolis in January.

So far, Indiana has reported three deaths from lung damage due to vaping - including two confirmed Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In total, 75 patient cases are under review - 30 cases definitely linked with 45 more suspected, state authorities said.

A pre-session study committee is looking again how Indiana could setup a non-sales tax, said Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso. A proposal he sponsored to tax vaping liquids failed last session. He would also support raising both smoking and vaping ages to 21, although he needed to look at the specifics of how any legislation worked.

Banning vaping altogether would do more harm than good, pushing that business further onto unregulated black markets, said Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage.

“What I’m afraid of is that we are going to have some knee-jerk reaction, when it really needs to be about guidelines, labeling and regulation,” she said.

For the past several years, Tallian has pushed to legalize marijuana and proposed creating a regulatory commission for cannabis and THC-related products, saying they should be treated like alcohol.

“Nobody dies from moonshine anymore,” she said. “We have alcohol regulated from every step of the growing process to the sale.”

New restrictions at the local, state and federal level are poised to wipe out thousands of fruit-, candy- and dessert-flavored vapes that have attracted teens. But experts who study tobacco policy fear the scattershot approach of the clampdown could have damaging, unintended consequences, including driving adults who vape back to cigarette smoking, which remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death.

The FDA has had the authority to ban vaping flavors since 2016, but has previously resisted calls to take that step. Agency officials instead said they were studying if flavors could help smokers quit traditional cigarettes.

But parents, teachers and health advocates have increasingly called for a crackdown on flavors , arguing that they are overwhelmingly to blame for the explosion in underage vaping by U.S. teens, particularly with small, discrete devices such as Juul’s.

Juul devices went on sale in 2015, and the company quickly propelled itself to the top of the market with a combination of high-nicotine pods, dessert and fruit flavors, and viral marketing. The San Francisco company now controls roughly 70% of the U.S. e-cigarette market.

Indiana’s 2018 Youth Tobacco Survey concluded e-cigarette use jumped 387% in high schools and 358% in middle schoolers from 2012. Around 35,000 kids started using e-cigarettes from 2016 to 2018, according to the report.

“The whole concept of vaping originally was that it would be a means for smokers to stop smoking,” Charbonneau said. “It’s questionable at this point if it is doing that, if it is just creating a next generation of smokers.”

On Wednesday, Lake County Commissioners voted to ban vaping inside and within 15 feet of the county government complex in Crown Point, bringing it up to date with its smoking policy.

Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary, a former state lawmaker, said vaping should have stricter regulations, but the county only has the power to regulate what happens on its property.

State lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement this spring on a proposal to tax liquids used in electronic cigarettes. Leaders say they hope a committee can determine how taxes could be imposed.

Last session, the House approved a 4 cents per-milliliter liquid tax, while the Senate endorsed a 20% tax on the price of vaping liquids, which was cut to 5% and dropped altogether on the session’s last day.

As of Oct. 8, there were 1,299 reported cases of vaping-related illness and 26 deaths in 21 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the CDC, not reflecting the two latest Indiana deaths.

Of those hospitalized, 70% are male, 80% are under 35 with 15% under 18, according to the CDC. Reported cases began to grow in late June and appeared to spike starting in late July.

Other states are looking at their own solutions. Eight states and Washington, D.C., currently have non-sales taxes on vaping, while three more, including Illinois, allow cities to set their own taxes, according to the D.C.-based Tax Foundation.

Last month, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the state health department to issue emergency rules that will prohibit the sale of flavored nicotine vaping products, including to adults, and the misleading marketing of e-cigarettes.

Public health investigators are continuing to search for possible causes to vaping-related lung damage.

The vaping cartridges that go by the catchy, one-syllable name “Dank” — a slang word for highly potent cannabis — are figuring prominently in the federal investigation to determine what has caused a rash of mysterious and sometimes fatal lung illnesses apparently linked to vaping. Most of the cases have involved products that contain the marijuana compound THC, often obtained from illegal sources.

So far, investigators have not identified a culprit in the illnesses reported in dozens of states. But officials say patients have mentioned the Dank name frequently. Many of the people who got sick in Illinois and Wisconsin, for example, said they used cartridges sold in Dank packaging.

Last month, Wisconsin authorities uncovered an illegal vaping-cartridge operation that they said was producing thousands of cartridges loaded with THC oil every day for almost two years. Photographs released by the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department showed neatly stacked Dank boxes and cartridges, apparently ready for shipment.

The raw materials to produce a Dank vape aren’t hard to find: Ready-to-fill Dank boxes and cartridges can be ordered from Chinese internet sites for pennies apiece. A Craigslist post last week offered a box stuffed with empty Dank packages for $16.

A rogue producer adds cannabis oil — almost certainly untested — and it’s ready for sale.

“It’s a generic product name that doesn’t really tie back to one store or one distributor,” Dr. Jennifer Layden, chief medical officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health told the Associated Press. “Folks are getting it from friends or folks on the street, with no understanding of where it came from prior to that.”

The Associated Press contributed.
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