A Hamilton lawmaker's bill to stop Montana communities from enacting local ordinances or resolutions to prohibit the sale of any vaping products or alternative nicotine products saw support Wednesday from vape shop owners and opposition from public heath advocates and educators.
Senate Bill 398 is carried by Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth. He told the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee vaping products are legal and should not be banned.
"The one thing they cannot do is ban it in totality. It’s a legal product. It should not be banned, but of course they can put sideboards on it," Ellsworth said.
Under the bill, a local government could enact a "reasonable" ordinance or resolution related to the sale of vaping products.
While the bill does not define "reasonable," Ellsworth said to his thinking that could mean something like keeping products out of reach of children in stores or not allowing vaping in restaurants.
Rep. Ron Marshall, a Republican from Hamilton, spoke in support of the bill. Marshall is co-owner of a vaping store. Earlier this session he brought a bill that would have barred a local government or the state Department of Public Health and Human Services from creating or continuing a regulation, ordinance or restriction related to vaping products.
Altria, which includes Phillip Morris and vape manufacturer Juul, has spent more than $20,000 lobbying since the start of the session on a handful of bills, including Marshall's.
RAI Services Co., formerly Reynolds American, lobbies on behalf of tobacco manufactures. That group reported spending $71,000 on lobbying before the session. And during the session, the lobbying group had spent more than $12,000 in support of Marshall's failed bill.
Reports for the period that include when Ellsworth's bill was introduced aren't due yet.
At the state level, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed to ban flavored vaping products in 2020 over concern that flavors targeted children. Ellsworth was a leader in a push from GOP lawmakers to oppose the ban, which the department eventually dropped.
After passing the House in February, Marshall's bill was voted down in the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee in mid-March.
Marshall told the same committee Tuesday in support of Ellsworth's bill that bans on things like flavored vaping products would hurt businesses like his. He also said local governments shouldn't have power to create ordinances on vaping products.
"This is a legal product. I think any change made to it should come before the House and the Senate here in the Capitol. Some of these local controls we've seen, from the COVID pandemic at the local level, are a little bit out of control," Marshall said.
Annie Tegen, with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told lawmakers that blocking local governments from making their own decisions would hurt children.
"This really takes away the communities' right to pass their own laws," Tegen said.
Cynthia Stremba, with Parents Against Vaping and E-Cigarettes, said research shows youth who use vaping products are four times more likely to become adult smokers.
"Flavors are the preferred vehicle," Stremba said. "Communities really need the ability to act to protect their kids."
But Tommie Dobbs, the co-owner of Liberty Vapor in Missoula, said if communities enact bans on things like flavored vaping products, her store would close. Missoula had passed a ban on flavored vaping products, but delayed enforcement until May after it was sued.
Dobbs said flavored vaping products make up 70% of her juice sales.
"The products that we sell in our stores are legal, adult products, sold to adult consumers," Dobbs said.
Billings middle-school teacher Michelle McNiven, however, said vaping products get into the hands of children and teachers spend significant time and energy stopping students from vaping in schools.
"That battle played out every day," McNiven said, adding teachers had to police bathrooms, corners of school buildings and even kids vaping in class.
"We did this in the hopes of saving children's developing minds from a lifetime of addiction," McNiven said.
Ellsworth told the committee that kids get their hands on other products that aren't legal for them, like alcohol.
"I think that's going to happen across the board on any product," Ellsworth said.
The 2019 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 58.3% of students had vaped, and nearly 19% had vaped on school property in the 30 days prior to the survey.
The committee did not take immediate action on the legislation.