Wise limits or Nanny State? -- Gazette.Net


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ANNAPOLIS — From afar, electronic cigarettes look like their papery cousins, even emitting a smoke-like vapor.

And just like their tobacco predecessors, e-cigarettes soon could be banned from bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces in Maryland.

Electronic cigarettes are just one of the products Maryland lawmakers hope to put under tighter control this session.

Lawmakers also have proposed to ban the sale of grain alcohol in the state and prohibit the sale of energy drinks to minors.

Proponents of the restrictions claim all three products pose risks to public health, while opponents fear Nanny State Maryland is again overstepping her bounds.

A clear, incredibly potent spirit, grain alcohol is 95 percent pure, or 190 proof. And at 38 cents per drink, it also is extremely cheap and consumed by young adults in large quantities, said David Jernigan, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Todd Eberly, a professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College, described the spirit as “an industrial solvent that people are drinking for the purpose of just getting drunk as quickly as possible.”

“Grain alcohol, in some respects, makes you wonder how it is legal to sell it anywhere anyway,” Eberly said. “We sort of look to the state to regulate those sorts of things.”

Jernigan said the grain alcohol ban — proposed by Montgomery County Sens. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, Jennie M. Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville, Karen S. Montgomery (D-Dist. 14) of Brookeville and Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village — is a guardrail of sorts.

“This is a ‘you cannot go there’ bill,” Jernigan said. “We make those decisions all the time about places we decide are too dangerous for young people to go.”

The bill already has passed the Senate and has the support of Maryland university presidents.

Typically, grain alcohol is used for one purpose: getting ridiculously drunk, ridiculously quickly, Eberly said.

On the other hand, energy drinks are sugar- and caffeine-loaded beverages marketed to keep consumers awake.

Citing the death of a Maryland girl a few years ago after consuming the drinks, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Dist. 15) of Rockville said she introduced a bill to ban sales and direct marketing of the drinks to minors.

“The evidence is so convincing I thought it ought to be talked about,” she said, adding this is not her typical type of bill.

As a parent, not knowing what all the sugar and caffeine in energy drinks can to do a child’s body, Eberly said he would not want his daughters to buy energy drinks.

“No store should be allowed to sell Red Bull to a 10- or 12-year-old just because they have $2.50 to put toward it,” he said.

Dumais’ bill would ban the sale to minors of drinks that have 71 milligrams or more of caffeine per 12 ounces and other ingredients including taurine, guarana and panax ginseng.

“I think it’s government overstepping,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of communications studies at Towson University. “It’s all part of increasing government.”

Del. Aruna Miller, sponsor of the bill to subject e-cigarettes to the Clean Indoor Air Act, said manufacturers claim the electronic cigarettes produce a safe water vapor and help smokers quit.

But e-cigarettes also glamorize smoking all over again, and, if used indoors, force nonsmokers to breathe in what they emit, she said.

“Would I want to breathe in clean air or something someone claims is clean?” said Miller (D-Dist. 15) of Darnestown.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so consumers do not really know what chemicals might be in what is inhaled.

Vatz questioned the rationale lawmakers use when deciding which threats to public health to regulate.

Why, he asked, don’t they also regulate how much fat can be marbled in red meat? After all, consuming it, too, poses risks to health.

“If there is danger to children established, that is one thing,” Vatz said.

Vatz said to ban a product before it is proven harmful, “seems to me all part of the Nanny State where government believes it should compromise personal freedom in any way that they just kind of think of on the spur of the moment because they can do it.”

kalexander@gazette.net