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A Hixson lawmaker is looking at raising the legal age of vaping as the nation grapples with increasing deaths from vaping-related illnesses.

As part of her health-centric platform, state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, is sponsoring a bill in the 2020 legislative session that would change the legal age to buy electronic cigarette products from 18 to 21. It would also make it easier for the state to tax and manage sales of e-cigarettes.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, will co-sponsor the legislation, which Smith said will be the most significant bill she plans to introduce next year.

"The marketing of these devices has been very effective," she said during a meeting Friday with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "While we want to protect them as tobacco cessation products for the adult population, we're trying to lift the age up to 21, as well as designate it a parity for the purpose of taxes and treatment under the law."

Smith, a former surgical nurse, was joined by state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, Hazlewood and state Sens. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson, to outline their legislative priorities for 2020 with their constituents from the chamber.

The discussion on vaping comes as U.S. health officials on Thursday announced that the death toll from vaping-related illnesses has reached 52, according to The Associated Press. There have been two deaths in Tennessee and four in Georgia, so far.

And while the median age of the people who died is 52, most people who suffered lung damage have been much younger, with half in their teens or early 20s.

With deaths on the rise, lawmakers in states across the country are working to enact legislation aimed at curbing vaping, including New York, which has passed an emergency ban on flavored e-cigarettes while it works on a permanent solution, the AP has reported.

Smith said her legislation would help address both the health issues associated with the e-cigarettes and the addictive qualities, which are affecting children and adults who vape.

"What we're dealing with here are two specific issues: addiction, because in each of those pods or cartridges is the equivalent of 15-20 cigarettes worth [of nicotine], so people, particularly the youth, are getting addicted very quickly through a very rapid absorption of nicotine," Smith said. "And the second problem that I alluded to is the reason we're having deaths and other health issues, the vitamin E acetates. Many of the flavors are delivered into the blood stream via a lipid compound. So when it's heated into the oil, it turns to this vapor, which takes the flavor into the lungs. But once it cools, it becomes sticky, and that's why we're seeing so much of the respiratory drama in the younger generation."

According to Smith, the legislation is especially important to keep e-cigarettes away from children because of how early they are being exposed to vaping.

"I was with the principal at Loftis Middle School recently and she had to intervene in a classroom because it was disrupted when a child had a vaping device," Smith said.

Lawmakers in Georgia are also weighing measures to limit e-cigarette use.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the chairwoman of a state House health panel, said her state plans to pursue legislation aimed at cutting down on underage use, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"If you are really concerned about young people not becoming addicted, why should we not follow [the example] and make this tobacco product the same as cigarettes?" she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @_sarahgtaylor.

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