California has one of the nation’s most smoke-free reputations. But that image has always been more hard-won than it seems.
Tobacco companies lavish hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians each election cycle. Not coincidentally, efforts to curb the lethal consequences of smoking die every year in one or another legislative committee. There’s a price to be paid for crossing the industry and a reward for currying its favor, and even here, legislators know that.
So on Wednesday, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law some of the most significant new anti-smoking legislation in decades, the governor wasn’t alone in deserving credit for political bravery.
Passed during a special session on health care that circumvented the usual kibosh-prone process, the bills signed by Brown range from loophole closures – thanks for not smoking anymore in California hotel lobbies – to serious regulation, at last, of electronic cigarettes.
In becoming the 12th state to treat e-cigs and vaping as tobacco products, California will help fill the vacuum left by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s seeming inability to sensibly regulate the latest path to nicotine addiction. Though fans of the practice argue that nicotine vapor is less unhealthy to inhale than regular cigarette smoke, the jury is still out, and the risks are too high, given the products’ burgeoning popularity among kids.
Under the law, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, vapers will face the same smoke-free restrictions as smokers, and can’t pollute bars, restaurants or other workplaces with their secondhand vapor. Vendors who sell to minors will lose their licenses.
Unless they are members of the military on active duty, Californians now also will have to be 21 to legally purchase tobacco products, another big change. Though the new age limit could be almost as hard to enforce as the existing one of 18, the Institute of Medicine reported last year that nearly a quarter-million adolescents could be saved from a premature death if the smoking age were raised to 21 across the nation. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, who authored that bill, has noted that 90 percent of daily smokers started before age 19.
Brown signed all but one of the six tobacco laws passed in the special session, a measure that would have let local jurisdictions levy their own tobacco taxes, and add to the tax proposals already piling up in advance of the November ballot. He’s right about that.
But it’s also worth saluting lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, who bucked his party’s pro-tobacco line in memory of his mother, who died of lung cancer. And Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who took a leap of faith in seeing the bills through a house that traditionally had resisted tobacco regulation. Even after the package had passed, the trip to Brown’s desk had to be delayed for weeks after an industry lobbyist threatened a referendum that would corner the market on signature gatherers and block other initiatives from the ballot.
It says something about one industry’s power, and maybe one state’s determination, that standing up for public health took this much effort and that California came through.