COLLEGE PARK — The head of the state agency that enforces tobacco regulations is asking a task force for help in keeping up with advances in the industry that include e-cigarettes and vaping.
The call comes as Comptroller Peter Franchot leads a task force he appointed to review the industry in the wake of a national health crisis involving lung illnesses believed to be connected to vaping. Jeff Kelly, director of the comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division, said his agency struggles to keep pace with an industry that uses small changes to prevent products from state oversight.
“We are not able to keep up with the changes in the other tobacco products market,” he said, urging the task force to recommend changes to the law that will allow his agency to “be ahead of the game and not a year or two behind it.”
Kelly asked the 41-member task force to consider recommending legislation that would contain broad language to encompass new products as they come on the market.
E-cigarettes and other products fall into a category known as other tobacco products, a category separate from cigarettes and tobacco products such as cigars.
The comptroller’s office, which is currently charged with enforcing tobacco regulations, is struggling to wrap its hands around the industry.
“We don’t regulate it, and we don’t tax it,” said Kelly.
Franchot, whose office is currently charged with regulating the tobacco industry, appointed the task force last month as the number of vaping-related illnesses and deaths climbed nationally and in Maryland.
Nationally, there have been nearly 3,000 vaping-related lung illnesses reported, including 47 deaths in 25 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of Nov. 26, there have been 53 related lung illness cases reported in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Health. No deaths have yet been reported in the state.
Franchot is also seeking to have lawmakers rescind a law passed this year that would strip him of his powers to enforce those laws and regulate the tobacco and alcohol industry. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill but the General Assembly overrode his action.
Those enforcement powers could be transferred to a new, independent agency in 2020. Four spots on Franchot’s task force were set aside for members appointed by the presiding officers in the House and Senate. Those seats are unfilled.
In October, Hogan and state health officials were reviewing state law that could lead to a required notice of health concerns or even a ban. To date, the state has only required state health care workers to report any lung illnesses suspected to be related to the use of nicotine or cannabis e-cigarette products.
The state warned medical cannabis patients to refrain from using cannabis vaping products.
The legislature does plan on taking up the issue of vaping.
Del. Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, has announced plans to sponsor a bill to ban flavored vaping liquids. Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard counties and a physician, said he will sponsor similar legislation in the Senate.
Max Behlke, director of state policy for vaping manufacturer JUUL Labs, said his company agrees with the need for regulation.
“I think something to consider is a vaping product registry,” said Behlke. Such a register would allow enforcement officers to quickly determine if the product is legal for sale and regulated within the state, he said.
JUUL told the task force that it is has discontinued sales of flavored products other than menthol and tobacco flavor.
Behlke said products that are flavored and packaged in ways that meant to entice children should be banned. He also called on the state to tighten age verification checks at the retail level.
Franchot speaking on Tuesday said the task force is seeking to understand the products better before making recommendations for legislation.
“We can’t really regulate it if we don’t know what’s in the products,” said Franchot.
There are just dozens of vape shops in Maryland but any shop licensed to sell tobacco products can sell e-cigarette products, “and they probably do,” said Kelly.
Kelly added that the state doesn’t have a full accounting of all those products and where they are sold.
Officials have little way of knowing who is manufacturing the e-cigarette liquids. To date, 44 Maryland vaping shops are registered with the FDA as manufacturers of the liquid, according to Kelly.
‘That’s part of the concern,” he said. “Who’s making the liquid and what’s in it?”