OGDEN — The Weber-Morgan health board voted unanimously to set a public hearing and to also take action on a new e-cigarette regulation at its next monthly meeting in late October.

Spurred by skyrocketing youth use of electronic vaping devices — the Weber-Morgan area leads the state in that respect — public health officials are looking for ways to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of minors.

“It’s a hot topic, and there’s a little concern in Weber and Morgan counties because we’ve seen the use rate go up to 20 percent” — for youth between 8th and 12th grades, said Brian Bennion, executive director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department.

“This is an item we hoped would be taken care of in the Legislature on the state level. That did not work out,” Bennion added at the board meeting this week. “We’re very hopeful this year that it may, but given the rates we have in this area, we did not feel we could wait any longer.”

The proposed regulation targets two main goals, Bennion said. The first is to reduce illegal sales of the electronic devices and flavored nicotine-laced liquids to youth by implementing a compliance check program similar to undercover procedures that have already proved effective in decreasing tobacco sales to minors.

“That has been hugely successful,” Bennion said, noting an 81 percent reduction in illegal tobacco sales over the last 11 years. Under state law, someone must be 19 to purchase tobacco and nicotine products.

The regulation would also require that vendors be licensed to sell electronic cigarette products. Those permits will cost about $100 per year.

“And then we would assign penalites for stores and clerks who sell to minors, similar to what is being used for tobacco — so it creates a level playing field,” Bennion said.

The regulation’s second goal is to reduce nicotine poisonings that have occurred in recent years due to children consuming the flavored “e-juices.”

“We’ll do that by requiring a license to manufacture the liquid,” Bennion said. Those licensing fees will fund random site audits for cleanliness, safety, and to make sure that childproof caps are being used in packaging. Penalties will be assigned to manufacturers out of compliance, Bennion added.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, chairman of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee, spearheaded unsuccessful e-cigarette legislation earlier this year.

“What we thought was going to happen has happened,” Ray said of the growth in teen vaping that he described as “very dangerous.”

The industry consists of not only big tobacco but a lot of private vapor shops, Ray said, noting a rift between those two camps “because they’re fighting for the youth.” Vaping advocacy organizations disagree that their vendors target the teen market.

Zach Williams, communication director for the Ogden School District, said that while public health falls outside their mission, they do support the county’s push in this regard.

“In the schools, we treat e-cigarette violations just as we treat violations of conventional tobacco products,” Williams said. “However when students are not in the care of the school district ... oftentimes perhaps they’re not receiving the same messages regarding the appropriateness or legality of certain products.”

Austin Francis, a senior at Fremont High School and current president of Weber-Morgan’s governing youth council, said that he knows students who never smoked tobacco cigarettes but have now begun vaping.

“Everyone’s starting to do it. If you want to be popular, you gotta go with that cliche,” Francis said of the reasons so many teens have taken to it.

However, since the e-cigarette market is not yet regulated, Francis said that he worries about his peers serving as the product’s guinea pigs.

The proposed regulation appears to have broad support among Weber-Morgan health board members.

“When this room filled up, I expected there would be both sides that would be brought forward,” said Weber County Commissioner and health board member Jan Zogmaister. “I do think we need to give hearing to both sides.”

The next Weber-Morgan health board meeting is tentatively set for 4 p.m. on Oct. 27. The panel meets on the second floor of the Weber-Morgan Health Department at 477 23rd St. in Ogden. As the date nears, meeting details will be posted online at http://www.co.weber.ut.us/health/boh_agenda.php

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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