South Carolina Bill Targets Youth Vaping Epidemic

A bipartisan proposal seeks to stop the flow of illegal, flavored vapes to South Carolina's youth pouring in from China.

This is a photo of e-cigarettes on a table.
E-cigarettes sit on a table on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, brought bags of the vapes confiscated from students to show senators. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

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COLUMBIA — In Oconee County, dozens of illegal e-cigarettes are confiscated from students weekly, tallying to potentially thousands in the past three years, estimates school security director Evie Hughes.

“I don’t believe you can go into a bathroom in a middle or high school and not get a vape,” Hughes told the SC Daily Gazette. “It is an epidemic among kids.”

A bipartisan proposal sent Thursday to the Senate floor aims to cut down on the availability of vapes to children, who could be inhaling much more than nicotine.

The fruity- or candy-flavored e-cigarettes that are by far the most popular among middle- and high schoolers are already illegal. Only e-cigarettes that taste like tobacco or menthol are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they’re generally marketed as a way to help adults quit smoking.

The problem is that the colorful, disposable vapes made in China (and often disguised as something else) have poured into the United States since shortly before Chinese regulators banned selling the flavors there in 2022.

U.S. authorities can’t keep up. The FDA announced its first seizure of illegal e-cigarette shipments in December. The 1.4 million products seized at the Los Angeles airport — all from China — were worth $18 million, according to the announcement.

South Carolina is among states acting on their own to try to stop the escalating flow to youth in their borders.

“This is about the children and their futures,” said Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla.

His bill, which received a rare unanimous vote by all 17 senators on the Medical Affairs Committee, would create a registry of vapes that are legal to sell in South Carolina. Products not on the registry, created and maintained by the attorney general’s office, could be seized from wholesalers and retailers.

Makers and distributors of vapes not on the approved list must remove them from stores statewide or face fines of $1,000 per day per product.

The sweet-smelling, brightly colored vapes senators are trying to get off shelves come in flavors like wild cherry, bubblegum and cotton candy. The packing can look like makeup brushes, highlighters and flash drives, making them easy to conceal in a student’s book bag or pockets, said Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

“It’s clear from the colors and shapes of these that these are being marketed to children,” said Hutto, among 15 co-sponsors of the bill.

As a show-and-tell of the problem, Alexander brought dozens of e-cigarettes confiscated from Oconee County students over the past several weeks.

Hughes said 30 to 50 vapes are taken from students in the district’s 18 schools each week.

In South Carolina, 47% of high school students reported vaping in 2020, according to the latest stats available from the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. It could be higher now.

Nationwide, there’s been a 2,600% rocket-fueled-like surge since 2019 in high schoolers who vape choosing disposables, with fruity flavors being by far the most popular, followed by candy flavors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Since 2019, federal law has set 21 as the legal age for buying tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. But state law still allows sales to anyone 18 and older. According to the state’s 2020 statistics, 12% of high schoolers who used e-cigarettes bought them from a store themselves.

Like regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes contain nicotine. And disposable vapes generally have a high nicotine content. The addictive drug is particularly harmful to young people whose brains are still developing, as it can affect their attention spans, mood, impulse control and ability to learn, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vapor has also been linked to lung damage and seizures, according to the FDA.

And that’s what can happen with regulated vapes.

There’s no telling what’s in illegal, unregulated vapes coming from China, senators said.

Some have THC, the psychoactive drug found in marijuana. Senators said they worry many could be laced with highly deadly drugs like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine that’s also pouring in from China. Fentanyl-laced vapes have already been reported in other states.

Under South Carolina’s bill, the registry would have to be in place by Sept. 1.

Four other states — Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin — already have similar registries. Virginia is expected to be the fifth with a bill passed by its Legislature this week.

Alexander’s bill has the backing of not only legislators of both parties but educators and law enforcement.

It would put the State Law Enforcement Division, the attorney general’s office and the Department of Revenue in charge of enforcement.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his deputies are busy with murders, break-ins and other serious crimes. They don’t have time to check what products stores have on their shelves, he said.

“We could spend all our time going to stores,” Lott said.

The registry would make it easier for the state to crack down on sales, said Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann, who spoke in support of the bill at a recent subcommittee meeting.

“Getting enforcement into place is key,” said Rickenmann, adding he’s heard from parents and teachers.

In Oconee County, students caught with vapes have to go through an eight-week course on the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Instead of deterring students, though, the strict punishments have led to teens getting sneakier about hiding their vapes, Hughes said.

“It feels like we’re fighting a war, but right now we’re losing the battle,” Hughes said.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. SC Daily Gazette maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seanna Adcox for questions: info@scdailygazette.com. Follow SC Daily Gazette on Facebook and Twitter.

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