Hillsborough targets vape stores near schools

Tampa Bay Times | By C.T. Bowen | February 16, 2023

Hillsborough County will consider barring new vape shops from opening near public and private schools.

The move comes a little more than three years after the county adopted an ordinance prohibiting sale of electronic cigarettes and vape products to people younger than 21.

But that ordinance contained no restrictions on where the shops could locate. It turns out, some of them are near schools.

Approximately 200 stores, located within 500 feet of schools in Hillsborough County, possess state permits to sell tobacco, nicotine or hemp products, according to research by the county Code Enforcement Department.

Visits to 20 of the retailers showed three-quarters of the shops are convenience stores or gas stations. They would not be covered by the new rules the county is proposing.

On Wednesday, commissioners agreed unanimously to consider changing their land-use rules to prohibit vape shops from locating within 500 feet of schools. It would not apply to existing businesses nor to retailers — like convenience stores — that sell vaping products “as only a minor portion of their overall sales.”

“I was shocked to see the number of vape stores so close to schools,” he said. “I am not at war with vaping stores. I want to protect business. All I want is for these vaping stores not to be so close to a school.”

“The numbers are big,” agreed Commissioner Pat Kemp. “The cat’s kind of out of the bag already.”

The aim is to discourage teenagers and preteens from using tobacco to avoid the health risks of nicotine addiction.

Vaping refers to inhaling on a battery-operated electronic device, or e-cigarette, that vaporizes a liquid or solid, usually a flavored nicotine product.

Commissioners opted for multiple strategies: Changing the county land-use code to limit where smoke shops can locate in the future; asking police and sheriff’s deputies to emphasize enforcement of existing rules; and authorizing a public education campaign on the health dangers associated with youth vaping.

Commissioners opted not to consider an ordinance banning people from vaping near a school.

“Do we want to punish the individual and kind of create a hornet’s nest for law enforcement?” asked Owen. “I don’t think that’s the goal with this. The goal is to prevent these stores from popping up right in front of the schools.”

The proposed land-use rule will require a public hearing and final vote before it goes into effect.

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