ARKANSAS, USA — A spike in cases of lung illness caused by vaping has public health officials alarmed, but anti-tobacco advocates say any efforts by an Arkansas city to create local restrictions are stymied by the way the state law over vaping is written.
"Vaping and 'Big Tobacco' are kind of one and the same," said David Oberembt, the government affairs director for the Arkansas branch of the American Heart Association.
The organization sees the same adversary in the decades-long effort to show the dangers of smoking, and now vaping.
"It's been something we've been actively trying to turn back," he said. "We're seeing the ramifications now with all these e-cigarette related illnesses that are popping up."
Oberembt is referring to the more than 200 reports of people getting serious lung problems from vaping. There are four cases in Arkansas and two deaths elsewhere in the country.
Health officials are worried most about the way this is hitting teens.
"Kids like to experiment things," said Dr. Appathurai Balamurugan, the deputy chief medical director for the Arkansas Dept. of Health. "They call it dripping. Dripping is directly pouring the e-liquid into the hot coils. It gives them a concentrated hit from the product."
Lawmakers managed to pass a law that gradually restricts vaping to people under 21. It kicked in Sept. 1, but when the city of Van Buren tried to take the gradual part out, they found that law - Act 1237 of 2015 - prevents it.
A city or a county can't go beyond what the state law says because of a specific section saying the state law "preempts" any local laws or attempts to create them.
The language is just a few sections down the page from another part of the law that says cities can pass local restrictions on traditional tobacco. The Heart Association says it's a move Big Tobacco is known for.
"Across the country, the tobacco industry has been trying to prevent cities from creating laws around e-cigarettes and other tobacco products," said Oberembt. "We saw a real rash of them across the country this year."
State Senator Eddie Joe Williams sponsored the 2015 law. He recalled that he definitely wanted vaping regulated, but also worried different local laws could cause problems.
"I got lots of calls from people who didn't want this law because they said it was taking away their rights," said Williams, who retired from his job as Republican majority leader in the State Senate after the 2017 session. "There was also concern at the time that we didn't want a patchwork of laws all over the state if cities could do this on their own."
Four years later, advocates hope there's movement at the capitol to give back local control.
"Small towns and cities and communities, they know what those problems are in those cities and what they need to address," said Oberembt. "I think that gives the people the right to govern. We have these government structures for a reason."
State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is on the record saying she would like to see vaping laws addressed if Governor Asa Hutchinson called a special session before lawmakers return in 2021.