Politics & Government

From regulating vaping to tanning, are SC lawmakers becoming ‘helicopter parents’?

South Carolina teenagers would be blocked from getting a nicotine fix or caffeine high, and those wanting to work on their tans may have to stick with the sun if some lawmakers have their way.

From tanning to vaping and, now, energy drinks, S.C. state lawmakers are pushing bills that would prohibit teenagers from using various consumer goods and services.

Pushing an array of bills aimed at curbing problematic teen behavior may be out of character for South Carolina’s GOP-led lawmakers, interested in limiting the reach of government. But most of the proposals mirror growing national health efforts that recently have garnered industry backing.

But at least one lawmaker questions whether some of the efforts go too far.

“There is a desire to do what we can to prevent tragedy from happening,” said state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, who voted against a bill that passed the S.C. House of Representatives earlier this month that bars minors from using tanning beds in an effort to prevent teen skin cancer.

“You have the right to life and you have the right to liberty,” Hill said. “But there is a point where you go so far in trying to protect people that you’re no longer able to make choices for yourself, and I don’t want to see us go down that road.”

The key, Hill argues, lies in informed consent and parental involvement — not in blanket bans.

“Make sure they’re not being endangered by false information or inadequate information, but I don’t think we can usurp the right a person has to make decisions for themselves,” Hill said.

Other lawmakers argue they’re addressing, in some cases, budding public-health epidemics through measures backed by the medical community.

“Is it my place preventing parents from letting children get skin cancer at a significantly higher rate? I think it’s certainly my place to weigh in,” state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said.

Finlay, whose father died from melanoma, said studies show that an indoor tanning device used before age 35 increases the risk of melanoma by almost 60 percent.

“There is no upside and unlimited downside,” he said.

State Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, argued the bill takes options away from people, some of whom rely on tanning to treat certain skin conditions.

“We can’t write enough bills to keep people from doing stupid things — from people staying out there in the sun too long or people staying in the tanning bed for too long — but we try anyway,” Smith said on the House floor during debate. “At some point we must say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Finlay called his fellow Republicans’ arguments a farce.

“The argument that we are the ‘nanny state’? No, no,” he said. “It’s not life, liberty and the right to tan. ... The dermatologists have weighed in. ... This isn’t a liberty issue. This is ignoring of obvious facts.”

Health, industry groups unite

In February, lawmakers moved quickly to keep teens from vaping, unanimously passing a measure that would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to enter a South Carolina vape shop without an adult. It also would require age verification for anyone trying to buy e-cigarettes online, either during the purchase or during its delivery. State law currently prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes and other “alternative nicotine products” to anyone under 18 years old. It also unlawful “to sell, furnish, give, distribute, purchase for, or provide” a tobacco product or an alternative nicotine product to a minor.

The Senate passed the bill earlier this month and is headed to the governor for his signature. The bill has the backing of public health groups concerned by the sharp uptick in teenage vaping.

E-cigarettes often are touted as a safer alternative to cigarettes, since they don’t contain tobacco. But teens using e-cigarettes still inhale addictive nicotine.

One in five high-school students uses e-cigarettes, even though that is illegal for anyone younger than 18, according to the S.C. Children’s Hospital Collaborative.

Juul, the most popular e-cigarette maker, supports the bill as a good-faith effort to curb teen use of nicotine products. But vaping advocates defended their products, which, they say, have helped adult chain smokers quit more harmful cigarettes.

And a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco and alternative nicotine products to 21 from 18 has the backing of both the tobacco and vaping lobby.

Juul Labs in March launched an ad campaign to support such legislation in South Carolina and other states, and is supportive of a federal law as well. A lobbyist for Reynolds American Tobacco, too, says the cigarette-maker supports a proposal by House Democratic Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, to raise to 21 the minimum age statewide to buy tobacco and nicotine products.

As of April 18, a dozen states have raised the tobacco sale age to 21, according to the American Lung Association.

“Research from the Institute of Medicine estimates that enacting Tobacco 21 at the federal level would result in 249,000 fewer premature deaths among young people born since 2000,” according to Juul Labs. “It would also cause a 25 percent reduction in the number of new high school age smokers, and a 15 percent decline in the number of new smokers under the age of 21.”

State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, who sponsored the vaping bill, said no law can supplant parental involvement, but sees the measures as tools to help parents protect their children.

A ‘warning shot’

His voice cracking, Sean Cripe of Chapin recounted how, two years ago, his 16-year-old son, Davis Allen Cripe, collapsed in a classroom at Spring Hill High School and died after drinking too much caffeine.

The teen’s official cause of death was a “caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia,” a result of drinking a large Diet Mountain Dew, a fast-food cafe latte and an energy drink over the course of two hours, according to the Richland County Coroner’s Office. Coroner Gary Watts also determined the teen had no “unfounded” or “undiagnosed heart condition,” The State previously reported.

“These drinks are very dangerous,” Cripe told a panel of S.C. House lawmakers this week. ”They’re clearly drinks made for adults and we should treat them as adult beverages.”

In response to Cripe’s death, state Reps. Leon Howard, D-Richland, and Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, co-sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to sell or give an energy drink to anyone under 18 years old. Knowingly violating the law would result in a misdemeanor charge and, upon conviction, a fine of least $50 for every violation.

A panel of House members voted Thursday to move to full committee the legislation, which is identical to legislation introduced last year that died in committee.

The bill still faces an uphill battle in committee, where lawmakers are expected to weigh health professionals’ conflicting testimony over the safety of energy drinks for youths.

“I’m not concerned about the pressure we’re getting from soft drink companies. I’m concerned about patient safety,” Howard said. The Cripe family “can’t afford the high-paid lobbyists and high-paid guns to testify on their behalf.”

Children have experienced cardiac problems and seizures related to energy drink consumption, pediatricians, emergency room physicians and a local coroner warned lawmakers during testimony.

Meanwhile toxicologists, including one who has been hired as a consultant for energy-drink maker Monster Energy, contend the drinks contain nothing harmful and have the same amount of caffeine as a medium-sized McDonald’s latte.

Some energy drinks can contain up to 300 milligrams of caffeine, which may be combined with herbal additives that act as additional stimulants, according to limited studies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends adults consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, or about four to five cups of coffee. The FDA does not list recommendations for caffeine use in children; however, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and adolescents not consume highly-caffeinated drinks.

And while officials say caffeine consumption in moderation generally is not expected to cause illness, the state poison control center issued a warning to parents following Davis’ death to know the risks of children and adolescents consuming caffeine.

“In this case, I’m not trying to ban or play Big Brother to everything,” Howard told The State after the hearing. “I just had parents come to me with tears in their eyes, heartbroken that an outstanding young man, their son, died from an energy drink. That concerns me,” Howard continued, noting that emergency room physicians have told lawmakers they are seeing patients come into the ER seeking treatment after consuming energy drinks.

Howard called Thursday’s vote advancing the bill “a warning shot” for the soft-drink and energy-drink industry “to get together with these parents and negotiate something that we can all live with.” Removing highly-caffeinated energy drinks from convenience store counters and checkout lanes, or requiring warning labels or advertisements that the drinks are not recommended for minors, are possible solutions, he said.

“If they don’t reach some agreement by January, I’ll do all I can to push full throttle to make something happen,” Howard said.

Sean Cripe and his wife, Heidi, said they never want to see other parents in their shoes.

“We’re keeping minors from purchasing something that is harmful to them,” Heidi Cripe said, adding, “And if you think, ‘Well it’s just the parents’ place to tell them not to do it,’ then why isn’t it just the parents’ place to say, ‘Just don’t smoke’ or ‘Just don’t drink’? It’s no different.

“This is absolutely what legislation is for — to protect the people of this state.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.