By Tryfon Boukouvidis
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers are backing efforts to limit the sale of popular vaping pens to minors, tightening hazing laws on campuses, and expanding the state’s current texting while driving laws. A Senate committee approved these bills and sent them to the Senate floor where legislators will cast their vote this week.
A proposal by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, would increase fines for vendors that sell vapor products to underage individuals. The new fines would go up from $50 to a maximum of $500 for a first violation, and from $100 to a maximum of $750 for a second violation. Any further violation would cost perpetrators up to $1,000.
Current fines for selling vaping products to people under 18 are “too low,” argued Talbot in the Senate Judiciary Committee C, pointing out that the existing law only mandates fines of up to $250 for a third violation and up to $400 for subsequent violations.
“I have two kids in high school and I can tell you the vaping is absolutely just rampant,” Talbot said, adding that the health impacts of these nicotine products are still unclear. “We’re still finding out what vape does to you,” he said.
Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, amended the proposal to also include tobacco products.
“We’re just still discovering the dangers of vape,” Carter argued, “but we know today the dangers of tobacco.”
House lawmakers struck down a proposal in May to raise Louisiana’s legal smoking age from 18 to 21. The bill was only backed by 24 legislators while 55 voted against it.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, or ATC, collected in 2018 approximately $200,000 in tobacco fines on products sold to underage individuals, according to data by the Legislative Fiscal Office.
The percentage of adults who report using electronic cigarettes daily or on some days is 2.8 percent, according to a 2018 report by United States Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But vapor products are especially popular with underage audiences and the use of such products has significantly increased between 2017 and 2018. Vaping has been trending among eights, tenth and twelfth graders, according to a survey on drug abuse by the National Institutes of Health.
The number of high school seniors using vapor products increased from 27.8 percent to 37.3 percent between 2017 and 2018. More than 10 percent of eighth graders reported they smoked vaping devices in the past year, according to the same report.
During this legislative session, the effort to limit the sale of vapor products to minors has received bipartisan support.
The House unanimously sent the proposal to the Senate side in May after decreasing the proposed fines from $1,000 to $750 for a second violation and from $2,500 to $1,000 for subsequent violation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also advanced a proposal by Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette that would tighten existing hazing laws for college groups–a high-profile issue that has happened repeatedly at main campuses across the state.
Landry’s bill would tighten the criminal hazing law the Legislature enacted last year to enforce the legal measures more effectively.
Student organizations and universities would have to report hazing incidents to local law enforcement offices as soon as possible instead of waiting to conduct their own investigation first before contacting police.
The proposal would also require student organizations to adopt a ‘no hazing policy’ and would extend the jurisdiction of campus police to hazing incidents occurring off campus. In effect, student organizations would not be able to avoid prosecution against hazing incidents off campus nor mask these incidents from the public’s eye.
The Legislature passed anti-hazing laws last year as a response to hazing that led to the death of LSU student Maxwell Gruver from alcohol poisoning in 2017.
Senate lawmakers also considered a bill that seeks to address the spike in cellphone related accidents and deaths on Louisiana roads.
A bill by Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, would expand the existing ban of cellphone usage while driving in school zones to all roads.
The proposal would also decrease the fines associated with texting while driving from $500 to $100 for a first violation and from $1,000 to $300 for a second violation.
A third violation would then incur fines of up to $300. The proposal would also lower the driver’s license suspension for a third violation from 60 to 30 days.
Safe driving practices, Huval said, is the main idea behind his bill. He cited other states that enforced similar legislation and as a consequence reported a decline in fatal car accidents.
Cellphone related fatal accidents are on the rise in the state, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. This year, there were nine fatalities and 317 cases of injury due to cell phone distractions, the data shows.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that one-third of U.S. drivers aged 18 to 68 years old engages with their phone while driving. The same report shows that nationally, there are more than 420,000 text and drive related injuries every year.
Richard Brown, a resident of Kenner, opposed the bill. In his testimony Brown said the problem with distracted driving is not the act of holding the phone but the mental distraction of the conversation.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, expressed her concerns about traffic incidents caused by electronics distraction, and supported Huval’s bill.
“We’ve been working on this a long time,” Barrow said. “We still have not yet come up with some good tools to really address it.”