California bills to regulate e-cigs, raise smoking age stall

An E-Cigarette and E-Liquid are displayed during an Assembly committee hearing on a measure to regulate E-Cigarettes at the Capitol Wednesday, July 8, 2015, in Sacramento,Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a victory for Big Tobacco, two California bills aimed at curbing youth smoking by cracking down on e-cigarettes and boosting the smoking age to 21 have stalled, with one lawmaker even rejecting his own measure after it was revised.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, had proposed to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, but that provision was stripped before a committee vote Wednesday, prompting him to renounce the plan.

“I cannot support it any longer. I dissociate myself from it,” he said.

Leno angrily told other lawmakers they were fooling themselves to think they shouldn’t define the devices that deliver liquid nicotine as tobacco products. He said the gutted version of SB140 won’t keep young people from getting hooked on e-cigarettes.

Adult smoking rates are at an all-time low, but e-cigarettes are experiencing an explosion in popularity, particularly among young people. For the first time in 2014, more teens reported using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Scores of small business owners and e-cigarette users cheered the outcome, quickly pointing out that they were the ones who stood up and opposed the bill and not large tobacco companies.

“It’s a victory for small businesses across this state that do not want to be associated with the tobacco industry,” said Gregory Conley, who testified against the bill as president of the American Vaping Association.

Conley said there are an estimated 1,400 e-cigarette retailers, or vape shops, in California.

But for many lawmakers, Big Tobacco cast a large shadow. Major tobacco companies are expected to overtake 75 percent of the e-cigarette market in the next 10 years, and though notably absent from the hearing, tobacco companies Altria and R.J. Reynolds have donated to over half of the members serving on the Committee on Governmental Organization, according to campaign finance records.

Altria and R.J. Reynolds have together spent more than $215,000 on lobbying in 2015, while the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and American Cancer society collectively spent more than $142,000 in lobbying to toughen tobacco laws, lobbying disclosures show.

Since 2013, however, large tobacco companies have spent more than double the amount spent by the trio of health groups to lobby California lawmakers.

Altria and R.J. Reynolds have spent over $2.7 million since 2013, while the AHA, ALA and ACS have together spent just under $1 million.

The chairman of the Committee on Governmental Organization, Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced, has accepted over $29,000 from Altria and R.J. Reynolds since 2013.

An attempt to reach Gray for comment was not immediately successful Thursday.

Altria spokesman David Sutton did not answer questions about company contributions to individual lawmakers on the committee.

Members of the committee who supported the bill as amended said the state should hold off as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers a national policy.

“I’m not sure I’m there yet on the definition,” said Sen. Henry Perea, D-Fresno, who voted for the amendments after noting pending federal developments by the FDA, which is weighing regulations that would subject e-cigarettes to a mandatory federal review and require that packages carry health warnings.

Leno’s original bill would have banned the use of e-cigarettes in California restaurants, hospitals and public transportation. Vendors would need to apply to the state for a license and would be subject to new state taxes.

The bill to increase the legal smoking age, meanwhile, stalled when the author yanked it from the agenda shortly before it was scheduled to go before the same committee.

Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez of La Puente said he lacked the votes needed to move the bill forward.

“Big Tobacco is following their usual playbook and trying to kill this bill quietly in committee,” he said in a statement. He vowed to continue working on the bill this year.

SB151 would make California just the second state after Hawaii to raise the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, signed legislation last month bumping his state’s smoking age, joining New York City with the highest age restriction in the country.

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