Capitol Alert

California lawmakers took thousands from Big Tobacco before they wrote this anti-vaping bill

Two California lawmakers with a history of taking money from tobacco giant Philip Morris USA have introduced a bill aimed at curbing teen vaping by creating new penalties on retailer and teenage buyers.

One critical senator says it resembles a measure the industry itself has previously promoted and the American Lung Association is opposed to it.

Assembly Bill 1639 would criminalize underage possession of vape products, making it punishable by a fine of $100. Offenders under age 18 would have to take anti-tobacco classes and perform community service. The bill would suspend the offenders’ driving privileges for one year, if they are younger than 18.

The proposal would also stiffen the penalty for selling to minors, or for “straw buying,” where an adult purchases tobacco products on a minor’s behalf. Furnishing tobacco products to a minor would be punishable by a $250 fine and a 60-day license suspension for a first offense.

And the bill would ban the sale of vape products outside of tobacco shops, meaning they’d be unavailable at grocery stores and gas stations.

The bill’s sponsors characterize it as a tough-on-vaping effort that would protect kids.

“As a father of four, including two teenagers, I have heard firsthand stories about the spread of vaping products. Since 2017, vaping has increased by 50 percent among middle school students, and 80 percent among high school students,” AB 1639 co-sponsor Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, said in a statement.

Co-sponsor Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said “We must do more to protect kids from these addictive products by restricting youth access points, limiting marketing exposure to kids, and establishing sufficient penalties for underage sales and possession.”

However, the bill is similar to legislation proposed by the pro-vaping Vapor Technology Association, according to a letter from that group to Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. Hill released a copy of the letter.

Hill earlier this year withdrew a bill, Senate Bill 38, to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in California rather than let it be amended, and is currently sponsoring a bill, Senate Bill 39, that requires flavored tobacco product sellers to obtain a signature, along with valid ID, before delivering their product.

While Hill’s proposal threatened manufacturers and distributors, the new bill focuses on retailers and buyers.

He said the language proposed by the industry group in its letter to him “would improve the optics of the problem but did not address its cause.”

“We have a public health crisis caused by a flavor crisis. That’s what we have to address with the strictest measures possible, not the industry’s optics crisis,” Hill said.

On Friday, the Vapor Technology Association wrote a letter to Gray saying it opposes the new bill, mostly because of its proposal to limit sales of vaping products to stores where customers must be over age 18.

Electronic cigarettes, the devices people use for vaping, are characterized as alternatives to cigarettes.

The bill “contains many provisions that are in line with the legislative and policy goals that VTA has historically supported,” wrote Tony Abboud, the association’s executive director. “However, the restriction of flavored vapor products to age- restricted stores dangerously limits access for adults trying to quit combustible tobacco.”

Abboud also opposed the bill’s “vague and subjective marketing standards” and said small businesses would be unable to survive if their license to sell tobacco products were to be suspended 60 days.

Also opposing the bill, in its current form, is the American Lung Association in California.

The group raised concerns about the “criminalization of youth for possessing tobacco products.”

“Big Tobacco has a long history of attracting and addicting youth and young adults with highly-targeted marketing. However, youth purchase, possession and use laws do not protect children from the misleading messaging and advertising by the tobacco industry,” the group said in a statement released Monday. “It is the responsibility of the tobacco industry and retailers to ensure youth are not targeted and should not fall on the vulnerable youth themselves.”

The American Lung Association said AB 1639 “mirrors proposals sought by the tobacco industry,” which the group called a bad-faith effort “when in truth, these unenforceable and problematic provisions will do nothing to curb youth use.”

Both Gray and Cunningham have a history of collecting campaign contributions from tobacco giant Philip Morris USA.

Gray collected a total of $20,800 in campaign contributions since 2012, while Cunningham received a total of $13,000 since 2016, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Nick Mirman, spokesman for Cunningham’s office, said in a statement that “industry groups played no role in crafting this legislation, and campaign contributions do not influence the assemblyman’s public policy positions. The bill was a joint work product of assemblymembers and the Department of Public Health, and some of the major components of the bill come from the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed anti-teen vaping regulations.”

Philip Morris USA’s parent company, Altria, is one-third owner of JUUL, a multi-billion-dollar vaping manufacturer that has become active in California politics in recent years, including purchasing a sponsorship slot at the California Democratic Party State Convention.

This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on July 8 to include a statement from the American Lung Association.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.