Capitol Alert

California lawmakers kill measure to ban sale of e-cigarettes in vending machines

A proposal to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes in California vending machines died in an Assembly committee Wednesday as both sides accused the other of advancing the interests of tobacco companies at the expense of public health.

Senate Bill 648 presented a confusing case in the ongoing debate over regulating the vapor devices that are marketed as smoke-free cigarettes. It also illustrated the influence tobacco companies – which have expanded in recent years to include electronic cigarettes – wield in the state Capitol. Tobacco company contributions to California Democrats have quadrupled over the last five years, a recent Sacramento Bee analysis found.

The bill by Sen. Ellen Corbett originally set out to prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes – also called vape pipes or hookah pens – in the same places traditional cigarettes are banned.

The industry opposed that version of the bill, which would have prohibited e-cigarettes in most indoor public places in California. It passed in the Senate last year but stalled when it hit the Assembly’s governmental organization committee, chaired by Assemblyman Isadore Hall. Cigarette companies have given Hall $35,700 in campaign contributions over the last five years, making him one of the Democrats who has taken the most from the companies in that time period.

Corbett, a San Leandro Democrat, has taken no money from tobacco companies and has introduced several bills to regulate electronic cigarettes. She said she rewrote the bill to focus on the vending machine sales of electronic cigarettes because it was the only way for her to get it through Hall’s committee. The new version of the bill didn’t go as far as she originally hoped it would in restricting e-cigarette use, Corbett said, but still offered a chance for lawmakers to limit access to them.

“We should be making sure that young people are not able to have easy access to e-cigarettes,” Corbett said. “We do not want e-cigarettes to be as easy to purchase as a can of soda pop or a Snickers bar.”

But in rewriting the bill, Corbett inserted language that health advocates oppose. So when SB 648 came up in the Assembly Appropriations committee on Wednesday, she found herself on the opposite side of the table from advocates from the cancer, heart and lung associations. They said the new version of the bill would create a definition of electronic cigarettes that the industry could use to water down regulatory efforts at the federal level.

“I know you in your heart are trying to do the right thing … But there is a larger battle here,” Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said to Corbett during the hearing. “(The industry) would be happy to trade off a ban on vending machines in exchange for evading larger regulation with that definition.”

Corbett disagreed and said the bill would only regulate vending machine sales in California, not create a broader definition of electronic cigarettes. She said defeat of the bill amounts to a win for cigarette-makers, while health advocates argued the opposite.

“The bill has been horribly manipulated, and members are very confused,” Corbett said. “There are members on the committee who want to do the right thing and be supportive of people in the health community. But at the same time the losers are going to be the young people who we are giving up on by not keeping e-cigarettes out of their hands.”

The bill failed when 12 of the committee’s 17 members did not cast votes. It is eligible for reconsideration.

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