SOUTH PORTLAND — A vape and smoke shop that opened across the street from Mahoney Middle School has upset some residents and pushed city officials to consider whether all smoking-related businesses – not just marijuana shops – should be prohibited near schools.

The City Council is on track to ban medical marijuana stores or dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, mirroring regulations it approved last year for adult-use marijuana retail shops that are expected to open here in the future under recently passed legislation and pending state rules.

The local focus on the new vape business coincides with a recent announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it plans to fight increasing underage use of tobacco and other nicotine products by imposing sharp sales restrictions on flavored electronic smoking devices, which vaporize liquid tobacco and other substances, as well as bans on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Also, Maine this year became the fifth state to ban the sale of tobacco, including vaping products, to anyone under age 21, in line with the state’s drinking age. The new smoking age excluded people who were at least 18 before the law went into effect July 1.

Portland Smoke & Vape opened in October at 585 Broadway, diagonally across the Ocean Street intersection from the middle school. The business is licensed and legal under state laws and local ordinances, but its visibility and proximity to the school have prompted parents and others to question why it was allowed to open so close to Mahoney.

“I understand that keeping kids from vaping takes more than just making e-cigarettes difficult to access, but this doesn’t seem to make much sense,” Liz Beaulieu, a parent of a 4-year-old, wrote to city officials.

NO LAW AGAINST IT

School officials have reached out to City Hall for help.

Board of Education Chairman Dick Matthews captured the intensity of the issue in a recent email exchange with city and school officials, wherein he voiced his “EXTREME disappointment” and questioned where “our morals” have gone.

“(It’s) just frustrating that we work hard to keep our kids focused on good choices,” Matthews wrote. “But now every day, in big lights flashing towards our school 200 feet away, is ‘Smoke and Vape.’ ”

Matthews clarified his concerns Thursday, saying he knows the shop is operating legally near Mahoney and neighboring Mill Creek Park. Still, he and other city officials are considering how to prevent similar shops from opening near other South Portland schools.

“Let’s use some common sense,” Matthews said. “We have a lot of vaping going on in schools across the country. We don’t need vape shops selling smoking paraphernalia near our schools.”

The council is expected to put vape shops on its workshop agenda to be discussed early next year. At-large Councilor Sue Henderson, a retired nursing professor, said she has received several complaints about the shop and believes it deserves council consideration.

Henderson said she believes vaping might help adults stop smoking more-harmful cigarettes, but she worries that allowing vape shops near schools sends the wrong message to young people.

“We can’t really do anything about the (vape shop) that’s already there,” Henderson said. “Establishing a boundary for these businesses just might be a social statement that we as a community don’t want anyone to get addicted to any substances.”

STUDENTS NOT WELCOME

Chris Jackson, an owner of Portland Smoke & Vape, said the community shouldn’t be concerned because he doesn’t want students in his shop. Maine law prohibits anyone under age 18 from entering a tobacco specialty shop without a parent or legal guardian.

Portland Smoke & Vape at 585 Broadway in South Portland.

“They can’t even come in the door,” Jackson said. “Even if they looked in the window, I’d ask them to leave the property.”

Jackson and other family members also operate shops at 1041 Brighton Ave. in Portland, near the Westbrook line, and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They offer a wide selection of flavored nicotine liquids or E-juice and vaping devices such as Juuls, which are especially popular among high schoolers because they’re easily concealed. The shops also sell glass pipes, pipe cleaners, herb grinders, hookahs, tobacco, cigars and other smoking-related items.

Jackson noted that 30,000 vehicles pass his leased shop each day, so he hopes to be there for a while. He emphasized that he has no plan to sell marijuana-based products, which wouldn’t be allowed near the school anyway.

“I’m a vape shop, first and foremost,” Jackson said.

Maine educators raised the alarm about youth vaping last year, when the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey found that 15 percent of Maine high school students reported using an e-cigarette or vaporizer to inhale an aerosol that can contain nicotine, fruit flavorings and other additives such as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The nationwide rate at the time was 11 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The biennial Maine survey, conducted in February 2017, indicated that vaping had dropped since the 2015 survey, when about 18 percent of students said they had used a vaporizer. However, school officials and students interviewed in late 2017 said they had seen a noticeable increase in vaping in recent months.

YOUTH VAPING INCREASING

More recently, the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey by the FDA and CDC found that vaping had increased 78 percent among high school students since last year and almost 48 percent among middle schoolers; 3.6 million youngsters reported vaping at least once in the previous 30 days.

Especially concerning to officials was a sharp rise in regular use. Almost 28 percent of high school vapers said they used e-cigarettes at least 20 days a month, and most used flavored products.

Matthews, the school board chairman, said there have been a total of four incidents involving middle school students and vaping in the last two years. Matthews didn’t distinguish whether the vaping incidents occurred at Mahoney or Memorial middle schools.

Matthews also said that while there had been a spike last year in vaping incidents at South Portland High School, it had fallen off this year. Superintendent Ken Kunin said he wasn’t able to immediately fulfill a request for more specific data about vaping incidents in South Portland schools.

The City Council has approved a first reading of amended medical marijuana regulations that would require retail shops or dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet away from any school. The rule mirrors zoning the council approved last year for adult-use marijuana shops that are expected to open here in the future, once the Legislature establishes rules for recreational marijuana use and sales that Maine voters approved in 2016.

State law prohibits new liquor licenses from being issued for establishments within 300 feet of a school. However, there are no state or local laws prohibiting or limiting tobacco or e-cigarettes sales near schools.

“It would be a challenge to shut an existing business down,” said Joshua Reny, assistant city manager. “We’re working on what to do going forward.”

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