By Rose Hoban
With a signature from Gov. Pat McCrory yesterday, North Carolina joined a growing number of states that have decided to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products.
Senate Bill 530 easily passed its final reading in the Senate chamber last Wednesday, after a somewhat tumultuous legislative journey.
E-cigarette users call what they do “vaping,” because the devices are filled with a nicotine-containing liquid that a smoker ignites electronically, creating a steamy vapor that’s inhaled.
The bill was sponsored in the House by freshman Rep. Jim Fulghum, a semi-retired neurosurgeon. Fulghum said his motivation was to get e-cigarettes out of the hands of minors.
There was only one problem with that, said Pam Seamans, head of the N.C. Alliance for Health: The law already forbids the use of e-cigarettes by young people.
But she drew attention to language buried in early versions of the bill that would have removed e-cigarettes from being regulated in North Carolina as tobacco products – which could be a problem for schools and hospitals that have forbidden tobacco use on campuses and in facilities.
Seamans said she felt the bill could be a ruse by the tobacco industry to free the devices from state regulation.
“The fact of the matter is, the best way to protect public health is to include these in the existing definition of tobacco products,” Seamans said. “The purpose of all these products is to deliver nicotine, so why should they be treated differently?”
Seamans and other advocates pointed out the language to Fulghum.
“I mean, the whole purpose of it was to keep minors from getting e-cigarettes,” he said.
‘Not going to do it on the House side’
Fulghum went back to the industry lobbyists who presented him with the bill initially and questioned them about it.
“I’d asked them, ‘What is this going to do,’ because I saw the language, and they said the FDA will take care of [regulating e-cigarette devices],” he said.
But the FDA has been dragging its feet for several years on deciding whether e-cigarettes are tobacco products or drug-delivery devices, leaving room for states and the tobacco industry to tussle over how to regulate the devices.
“Well, the FDA didn’t take care of it, and they weren’t going to take care of it, because they’re slow,” Fulghum said.
“So I told [the industry lobbyists], ‘I want this language in the bill.’ And they said, ‘We’ll get a [substitute] prepared.’ And then it got before committee; no substitute,” Fulghum said.
Later that day, he was seen in a heated conversation with a tobacco lobbyist outside the committee room.
“And I said, ‘Well, fine; you [can] run it in the Senate if you want to. I’m not going to do it on the House side,'” Fulghum recounted.
In the Senate, Thom Goolsby (R-Wilmington) shepherded the bill through the approval process. At one committee hearing, Sen. Josh Stein (D-Raleigh) proposed an amendment to add e-cigarettes into the state’s universal definition of tobacco products. That amendment failed on a voice vote.
Eventually, the Senate voted on the bill, unchanged. But it had to go to the House for concurrence, and in a House judiciary committee the bill got stuck.
During the first presentation of the bill, Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex) expressed confusion that its House sponsor, Fulghum, wasn’t there. Then he realized that Fulghum was unhappy with the bill.
“Everyone agrees we want to keep this from kids under 18,” Stam said. “The contention is how to regulate the devices.”
Eventually, Stam, Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Fayetteville) and Fulghum met with health advocates and tobacco-industry representatives to hammer out a compromise bill, which regulates the devices as tobacco products but delays a decision on how to tax them.
“This is not a compromise; this is what all parties wanted to do. It wasn’t expressed in the right way,” Stam told the committee.
When asked if he felt manipulated during the course of the bill’s progress, Fulghum responded, “I think we’re all manipulated, for everything … seriously.”
“I’m not mad at anyone; I’m just learning the ropes, and people will use you for what you’re willing to be used for,” he said. “And I’m just learning that, OK, maybe next time I’ll be more suspicious.
“But I don’t blame them. They gotta do what they gotta do.”