Opinion

Big tobacco flexes muscle on e-cigarette bill

Last month, after a spending over a year collecting data and holding public hearings, the Hayward City Council adopted the strongest local tobacco retailer license in the state, according to the American Lung Association, to make sure that tobacco products are kept out of the hands of youth. Given the propensity of the tobacco industry to manipulate language to their benefit, we enlisted tobacco control legal experts to craft the definition of the latest smoking devices – electronic cigarettes – to ensure, as much as possible – that these and other emerging tobacco products would be covered. We followed Senator Ellen Corbett’s (D-San Leandro) bill, SB 648 very closely to ensure that our local legislation would complement her efforts.

To our disappointment, SB 648 which started out as a tough crackdown on electronic cigarette manufacturers to ensure the health and safety of our children may end up giving tobacco companies the green light to once again begin marketing to California’s children.

The measure, SB 648 by Senator Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), originally would have ensured e-cigarettes were regulated just like any other tobacco product. But that tough language was stripped by powerful, pro-tobacco voices in the Legislature.

Throughout her long legislative career, Senator Corbett has been among the strongest voices in Sacramento speaking out about the dangers of tobacco use. She has been a leader in targeting the e-cigarette industry as tobacco companies seek to exploit changing fads as an excuse to get around decades of tough state laws aimed at prohibiting tobacco companies from targeting children, and getting them hooked on tobacco.

The new language is a known tobacco industry tactic to draw a distinction from an e-cigarette and a tobacco product. E-cigarette advocates are working diligently nationwide to further themselves from both cigarettes and tobacco products, and to exempt e-cigarettes from current smoke-free laws.

Unfortunately, Corbett’s latest legislation was hijacked by pro-tobacco groups, and the lawmakers they fund, in an Assembly committee hearing last month. The bill in its current form is now opposed by leading anti-tobacco groups including the American Lung Association in California, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. The measure must be changed again before it is allowed to go forward.

The measure would prohibit e-cigarettes from being sold in vending machines outside of adult establishments – a regulation that already exists for regular cigarettes. But lawmakers in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee inserted language into the bill last month explicitly stating that e-cigarettes are not the same as cigarettes.

The seemingly innocuous clause would quietly create a subtle distinction of classifying e-cigarettes as something other than a tobacco product – a tactic that the e-cigarette and tobacco industry is desperately seeking and proactively supporting now that the bill was amended.

Corbett’s bill could now potentially obscure many future controls for e-cigarettes. The new language is a known tobacco industry tactic to draw a distinction from an e-cigarette and a tobacco product. E-cigarette advocates are working diligently nationwide to further themselves from both cigarettes and tobacco products, and to exempt e-cigarettes from current smoke-free laws.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been a clear increase in the use of e-cigarettes among minors.  As noted in the CDC’s September 2013 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students doubled during the surveyed one-year time period and over 1.7 million youth had tried the nicotine delivery devices.

Senator Corbett is right to want to crack down on the marketing and distribution of these dangerous tobacco products. Unfortunately, what started as a well-intended effort to protect our children and public health now does just the opposite. As currently written, through some crafty backroom dealing from high-paid tobacco lobbyists, SB 648 once again puts our children in the crosshairs of tobacco company marketing schemes.

Senator Corbett, who has long cared about children’s health and keeping tobacco products out of the hands of minors, should insist on changing the bill back to the way it was before the tobacco industry rewrote the measure last month. Her legacy in the State Senate may depend on her success in accomplishing that.

Ed’s Note: Michael Sweeney is the former Mayor of the City of Hayward, California


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