On Thursday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed a bill that strengthens penalties for tobacco retailers caught unlawfully selling nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21. Merchants now face a fine of up to $1,000 for the first violation, and up to $2,000 for each subsequent violation. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed legislation Thursday increasing the penalties on tobacco retailers that unlawfully sell e-cigarettes to those under 21.

The measure comes as the county considers a ban on the sale of all e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine products with the exception of tobacco, menthol and mint flavoring.

The legislation signed Thursday by Bellone comes amid a reported steady uptick of vaping among teenagers in Suffolk. The bill, which goes into effect in April, will still penalize retailers $1,000 for the first violation, but now up to $2,000 for each subsequent citation.

At a news conference in Mount Sinai, Bellone called underage vaping a "health crisis" and said businesses that ignore the law will face harsh consequences.

"We will deter those retailers from this cycle of behavior and ensure that these penalties have a serious and lasting effect," Bellone said. "It is on us to protect our children from these harmful and addicting products that can only lead to negative consequences."

E-cigarettes and e-liquids allow inhalation of an aerosol that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. More than 15,000 flavors of e-cigarettes are available, including those that mimic Jolly Ranchers, cotton candy and Kool-Aid.

Suffolk Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she's heard from staff at Stony Brook University Hospital's pediatric department about mothers bringing in children who are addicted to the nicotine in e-cigarettes.

"They are shaking. They're sick," Anker said. "It is an epidemic."

The Suffolk Police department conducted an undercover sting operation in September and issued citations for illegally selling e-cigarettes to minors to 21 of 101 retailers and vape shops.

"We will continue to enhance our presence and will continue the crack down against those establishments that sell these products to minors," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.

The police department, Hart said, spoke to more than 10,000 students in the county during the 2017-2018 school year about the dangers of vaping, its most-requested school program.

State regulations prohibit the sale of liquid nicotine products to anyone under 18, but Long Island municipalities have tightened their restrictions and oversight of e-cigarettes in recent years.

In 2015, Suffolk County raised to 21 the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and Nassau followed suit earlier this year. The counties also require retailers to keep e-cigarettes and other vaping products behind the counter. 

Critics say the flavors, packaging and marketing are meant to entice young people but advocates contend that vaping is a safe alternative for adults looking to quit traditional cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration has called youth vaping an “epidemic” and has threatened the makers and sellers of e-cigarettes if they don’t curtail their sales to minors. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a 78 percent increase in vaping among high schoolers in the past year and a 48 percent increase among middle schoolers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State Health Department has proposed banning all flavored e-cigarettes —  which would make it the first state in the nation to take such a step —  while Suffolk has proposed a similar ban.

The bill, which is expected to be considered by the Suffolk Legislature's Health Committee early next year, has the support of many physicians, parents and educators but is opposed by vape shop owners and retailers who contend the flavors help smokers quit combustible cigarettes. 

Michael Frennier, president of the New York State Vapor Association said Suffolk's bill will lead to the closure of 50 vape shops across the county and the loss of about 200 jobs.

"Small business owners will default and many could end up homeless" Frennier said. "It will have severe consequences."

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