What Made This Rhode Island Legislator Change Her Mind About Vaping?

    In September 2019, when cases of “EVALI” lung injuries peaked in the United States and news outlets began aggressively covering the subject, Rhode Island Representative Julie Casimiro did what many politicians had done: She called for the prohibition of flavored vaping products.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet determined, as they belatedly did later that fall, that the mysterious lung illnesses were coming from vitamin E acetate found in tainted illicit THC cartridges. And there was already widespread concern, again fueled by sensationalized media coverage, that a new generation of teenagers had become “hooked” on nicotine—not through cigarettes but through the burgeoning technology of vaping and an array of attractive flavors, widely portrayed as being designed to entice kids.

    Rep. Casimiro, who represents North Kingstown and Exeter in District 31, accepted the prevailing received wisdom. That same month, then-Governor Gina Raimondo, now the US secretary of commerce, issued a temporary ban on flavors that Rhode Island’s health department later made permanent.

    But Casimiro, a Democrat, soon did something that many politicians haven’t done. She changed her mind about vaping.

    Only a few weeks after calling for a ban, Casimiro—along with Mike Runshe, the CEO of Giant Vapes, and Dino Baccari, the White Horse Vapor owner—wrote an op-ed for The Providence Journal advocating for “sensible vaping policies.”

    “I watched adults come in and ask for strawberry shortcake flavors. We need to regulate it, so people can continue to use vaping products as harm reduction tools.”

    Her shift was surprisingly easy. “I got inundated with calls after I supported the ban,” Casimiro told Filter. “So I just met with people. Specifically, I met with my constituents who used vaping devices to quit smoking.”

    She even toured White Horse Vapor in North Providence with Baccari, where she saw for herself the sort of customers who walk through the door. “I watched adults come in and ask for strawberry shortcake flavors,” Casimiro said. “We need to regulate it, so people can continue to use vaping products as harm reduction tools.”

    Casimiro didn’t just publicly walk back her previous comments; she took action. In mid-February this year, she helped introduce a new vaping bill, which finally had a committee hearing this past week after COVID-related delays.

    H5548 lays out the penalties for selling vaping products to minors, outlines licensing requirements, and places strict rules on advertisements—they can’t contain terms like “candy,” display certain images, or reference pop culture like  “video games” or “animated television” that’s “known to appeal to minors.”

    H5548 would also repeal Rhode Island’s established flavor ban and allow adult users to once again buy and vape whatever regulated flavor they choose.

    Casimiro’s nuanced approach to vaping is rare among legislators, even as other harm reduction policies and drug legalization or decriminalization bills catch on throughout the country. Many Democratic elected officials have either pushed for or supported blanket flavor bans—for example in states such as New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Lawmakers behind such moves almost always cite one reason: to “protect the kids.”

    Adult vapers, and the adult smokers in need of safer options, are typically left out of the discussion. It doesn’t matter how many adult vapers explain that flavors are what made them transition from combustibles to vaping, as they didn’t want to vape tobacco flavor—a taste they were actively trying to leave behind because it reminded them of cigarettes. And it doesn’t matter that the mom-and-pop vape shops where many buy these safer products are not inextricably linked to Big Tobacco.

    Casimiro is optimistic about the bill, but says that regardless of the outcome, her goal will continue to be educating people. Though it’s of course difficult to educate those who don’t wish to be educated. For instance, she said, the “Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, they don’t want to hear anything about it.”

    “Adult vaping,” Casimiro concluded, “is not the issue.”


     

    Photograph by Lindsay Fox/E-cigarretteReviewed via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex is a staff writer at Filter. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Nation and The Daily Beast, among other outlets. He is also a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received both restricted and general support grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Alex is currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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