Capitol Alert

California health officials launch campaign against ‘vaping’

Mario Weaks, a sales associate at The Vapor Spot on J Street in midtown Sacramento, exhales smoke from his e-cigarette on Wednesday.
Mario Weaks, a sales associate at The Vapor Spot on J Street in midtown Sacramento, exhales smoke from his e-cigarette on Wednesday.

Inside the Vapor Spot on J Street, these are the words used to describe the liquid that goes in the electronic cigarettes that have fueled the “vaping” trend: Watermelon, vanilla cream, super fly lemon pie.

California’s top public health officials are working to introduce a new vocabulary to describe the ingredients: benzene, formaldehyde, nicotine.

“We see e-cigarettes as a growing threat that needs to be addressed,” Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, said in a phone call with reporters Wednesday, as he announced a new effort to warn Californians about the dangers of the devices also known as vapes, vaporizers and vape pens.

“From all the evidence we have so far, e-cigarettes are not as harmful as conventional cigarettes, but e-cigarettes are not harmless. They are not safe.”

Chapman called for a “bold public education campaign” to inform Californians about the health effects of electronic cigarettes, and sent an advisory to doctors urging them to tell patients that vaping is especially harmful to teenagers and pregnant women.

Electronic cigarettes contain at least 10 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects, according to the report the California Department of Public Health released Wednesday. And while they are widely marketed as smoking cessation devices, “there is no scientific evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers successfully quit traditional cigarettes,” the report says.

Instead, the report says, e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation to nicotine with many of the same marketing techniques that have been banned for tobacco products. The devices are advertised on TV and radio, where tobacco ads are banned, and some packaging features cartoon characters, including Hello Kitty.

“The fact that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, is not typically included in e-cigarette advertising,” the report says.

Manufacturers of the products were quick to respond, calling the report from California’s health department “alarmist.”

“It inappropriately paints what is a complex public health topic as a black-and-white issue,” said Gregory Conley of New Jersey, president of an industry advocacy group called the American Vaping Association.

Conley said electronic cigarettes have helped many Americans, including him, quit smoking. He criticized California health officials for dismissing them as a potential cessation tool.

One former smoker was spending her lunch break Wednesday at the Vapor Spot in Sacramento, puffing on an electronic cigarette in a menthol pear custard flavor.

“I started doing a little research when (vaporizers) started popping up because I knew I couldn’t quit cigarettes cold turkey,” said Rachel Chong, 27. “I wouldn’t say I think vaporizers are more healthy, I would say they’re a healthier alternative.”

Nearby was Jeremy Edwards, 25, who said he’s been off cigarettes for about a year and likes vaping the “super fly lemon pie” flavor.

“From cigarettes to vapes, I feel better. Going to the gym and working out is easier,” Edwards said.

“If I vape too much, I get a little dizzy; I guess that’s nicotine poisoning. But you get to know your levels.”

Vaping is especially popular with the under-30 crowd, which is three times more likely to use e-cigarettes than those over age 30, according to the public health report. And among teenagers, the devices last year were more popular than traditional cigarettes for the first time, the report says, with 17 percent of high school seniors reporting using them.

Inside an electronic cigarette is a chemical liquid that gets heated up and then inhaled by the user. The sweet flavors the liquid comes in is part of the problem, Chapman argues in his report. The tantalizing tastes make them “especially appealing to youth and small children who may accidentally ingest them,” the report says. Accidental exposure to the liquids has caused a dramatic increase in the number of calls to poison control centers nationwide: from once a month in 2010, to 215 per month last year.

The same trend is taking place in California, the report says, where from 2012 to 2013, the number of calls to the poison control center involving e-cigarette exposures in children age 5 and younger increased from seven to 154.

“Adults have also mistakenly used e-liquid in harmful ways, such as eye drops, and have been harmed by exploding cartridges and burning batteries,” the report says.

The report calls for a media campaign, but does not say how much would be spent or what kind of materials would be produced. Chapman said officials are considering TV and radio spots, and that the state could pay for them with money from 1988’s Proposition 99, which put a 25-cent tax on cigarettes to pay for an anti-smoking campaign.

In addition, the report calls for new policies that treat e-cigarettes like traditional cigarettes and protect the public from exposure to their chemicals in liquid and aerosol forms. A bill that would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in the same places smoking is banned was introduced in the Legislature this week by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. In recent years, as more Democrats have accepted campaign donations from cigarette makers, similar legislation has failed.

Chapman declined to say whether he supports the legislation or comment on the Legislature’s rejection of earlier attempts to regulate e-cigarettes.

“Our job in public health is to provide the policymakers with the best analysis of the science and research and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re sharing with the public, including the state policymakers, where the science stands. And then it’s in the hands of the policymakers to make those decisions.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed regulations for e-cigarettes that would prohibit companies from giving out free samples, require a nicotine health warning statement on packaging and in advertisements, and require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients. But it could take years before the rules are finalized, Chapman said, putting more onus on states to act.

The report says the rising popularity of e-cigarettes – and a lack of regulations to curb their use – threaten California’s progress in reducing smoking rates and their associated health problems. In the last 25 years, California’s efforts to reduce smoking have cut the smoking rate in half, saved 1 million lives and saved $134 billion in health care costs, Chapman said.

But the report’s findings on the current use of e-cigarettes suggest that many of those gains could be reversed: “Without action, it is likely that California’s more than two decades of progress to prevent and reduce traditional tobacco use will erode as e-cigarettes re-normalize smoking behavior.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

What’s in that vapor?

When heated, the liquid in e-cigarettes forms an aerosol that has been found to contain at least 10 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. A partial list:

▪ Acetaldehyde

▪ Benzenene

▪ Cadmium

▪ Formaldehyde

▪ Lead

▪ Nickel

▪ Nicotine

▪ Toluene

Source: California Department of Public Health

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